School Choice for Me, But Not for Thee

Published August 1, 2002

President George W. Bush’s Fiscal 2003 budget calls for a $50 million school choice demonstration project and an education tax credit for parents whose children are trapped in failing schools.

Whether his plan gains traction in Congress depends largely on whether members of Congress are willing give to others the freedom they themselves enjoy: namely, to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.

Among members of the 107th Congress, 47 percent of Representatives and 51 percent of Senators send their children to private schools, according to a Heritage Foundation survey reported in “Another Look at How Members of Congress Exercise School Choice” by Research Associate Jennifer Garrett. The percentage of members practicing private school choice in 2001 was higher than in Heritage’s previous surveys, particularly in the House of Representatives.

For survey respondents with school-age children, the Heritage survey found:

  • 53 percent of Senate Finance Committee members and 50 percent of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee members exercised private school choice.
  • 43 percent of House Ways and Means Committee members and 32 percent of House Education and Workforce Committee members chose private schools for their children.
  • 38 percent of members who represent the congressional districts of the 10 largest U.S. cities have chosen private schools.
  • 35 percent of Black Caucus members and 33 percent of Hispanic Caucus members chose to send at least one child to private schools.

Three Opportunities, Three Strikes

Despite the rising popularity of private schools in Congress, many members voted to block legislation giving other families the range of options they themselves enjoy. In fact, had members who exercised school choice voted for legislation to give poor parents the same opportunities, that legislation would have passed.

In 2001, members of Congress who practiced private school choice were given three opportunities to provide a similar opportunity for poor children in failing schools. During consideration of the No Child Left Behind Act, Representative Richard Armey (R-Texas) offered an amendment to allow children in failing and dangerous schools to attend a school of choice. It was defeated by a vote of 155-273. Had all of the members who practiced school choice voted for that amendment, it would have passed 224-204.

Armey offered a second amendment authorizing a demonstration project to evaluate the effects of school choice on the academic achievement of poor students. The amendment, which failed 186-241, would have passed 244-183 had all members who exercised school choice voted for it.

During Senate consideration of the No Child Left Behind Act, Senator Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) offered a similar amendment that was defeated 41-58. Had the 13 nay-voting senators who send their own children to private schools voted yea instead, the legislation would have passed 54-45.

The amendments reflect two of the proposals in the President’s original No Child Left Behind school reform plan. The final bill contained neither of them.

Parents Support Choice But Can’t Choose

Among parents who are not in Congress, most send their children to public schools but support vouchers for those who need them. A recent survey conducted on behalf of the National Education Association found strong support for school choice programs among the public: 63 percent of those polled favored legislation that would provide parents with tuition vouchers of $1,500 a year to send their children to any public, private, or charter school.

Support for school choice is strongest among low-income and minority parents. The Heritage Foundation report cites several polls showing a clear majority of African-Americans support school choice. Support for choice is highest among black parents under the age of 35, 75 percent of whom support vouchers. Conversely, a 2001 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found 69 percent of black elected officials oppose vouchers.

The interest of poor parents in vouchers is reflected not only in polls but also in the sheer number of applicants for scholarships to private schools, the Heritage report contends. The demand exceeds the capacity of scholarship organizations. For example, while the Children’s Scholarship Fund has provided more than 40,000 scholarships to poor children since 1997, more than 1.25 million low-income parents have applied. Enrollment in charter schools and home schools—a good gauge of parental choice—has increased substantially over the past few years.

“The failure to approve measures to enable all children to benefit from the best school environment possible makes less and less political sense,” observes Garrett, “especially in light of growing public support for school choice among Americans, particularly parents and minorities.”

She concludes such support “will grow with the mounting evidence that school choice improves achievement, challenges public schools to improve, and enables low-income children to escape poorly performing schools.” Garrett notes members of Congress will be increasingly “hard-pressed to explain why the same educational option should not be afforded to parents whose children attend substandard schools.”

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Jennifer Garrett’s May 22 Backgrounder, “Another Look at How Members of Congress Exercise School Choice,” is available from the Web site of The Heritage Foundation at