School Choice Has a Friend on Capitol Hill

Published January 1, 2006

Following the results of the 2004 presidential election in the United States, United Press International reported many houses in Malerkotla, a township in the Punjab state of India, were illuminated and residents were distributing sweets and dancing to celebratory music. It was not the re-election of George W. Bush that excited them. Rather, it was the congressional win in Louisiana’s 1st District, where Piyush “Bobby” Jindal (R) became the first Indian-American in 46 years to win a seat in Congress.

Today, school choice supporters on Capitol Hill may not be dancing in the streets because of Jindal, but they are certainly enthusiastic about his rapid emergence as a leader in the movement. Jindal recently became co-chair, along with Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona), of the Education Freedom Caucus, a group in the House of Representatives dedicated to removing obstacles that prevent parents from choosing the best education for their children.

The caucus’s mission statement declares, “parents should be free to select the best public, private, charter, home, or other school option for their children, and schools should be free to pursue academic excellence without restrictive mandates that limit innovation and flexibility to meet local needs.”

Champion of Choice

Jindal gained prominence as an advocate of parental choice when he championed the creation of Family Education Reimbursement Accounts (FERAs), which would have enabled hurricane-displaced families from the Gulf Coast to gain federal aid directly, without red tape, to send their children to the public, charter, or private schools they had chosen.

Public education interest groups protested this use of “vouchers,” even only as emergency relief, and FERAs fell a few votes short of approval in committee. Even so, it appeared a final compromise would include reimbursement for private schools, though the public bureaucracy would control the flow of money.

Child of Choice

During those debates, Jindal repeatedly referred to the desirability of empowering families. Of the thousands of children forced to evacuate their homes and enter new learning environments, sometimes far away, Jindal said, “We owe it to them, and their families, to find innovative solutions that make sure that parents are empowered to provide the best educational opportunities for their children. … These accounts will keep kids in schools, empower parents to make sure that their children’s needs are being met, and make sure all schools that have taken in needy students are supported for their generosity.”

Jindal’s own parents moved to the United States from Malerkotla in the late 1960s to pursue educational opportunities. Jindal was born in Baton Rouge, and his rise to leadership status has been swift. Among other prominent positions, he was director of a national bipartisan commission on the future of Medicare and president of the University of Louisiana System. At 28, the former Rhodes Scholar became the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana, losing narrowly.

Voucher Program Progress

The Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, created by Congress in January 2004 as the first federally funded pilot voucher program, is receiving some good ink. In a November 14, 2005 feature, the New York Sun told the story of a mother delighted her daughter can now travel across the District to attend a prestigious private school instead of going to a nearby public school “where there’s broken windows, and glass, and litter, and drug paraphernalia lying around.”

The Sun also quoted at length Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, a Democrat who defied his party’s establishment to advocate for the vouchers’ creation.

“I think the good [DC] schools have gotten better, and the mediocre schools are getting on track because, I believe, we’ve had a charter school movement that’s been very robust, and because of the vouchers,” Williams said. The mayor was not willing to conclude voucher programs should be extended nationwide. “But,” he added, “I do believe that where you’ve got low-performing schools in bad situations, you ought to give parents that choice, whatever that happens to be.”

The media was attracted by a first-year evaluation of the five-year DC pilot project, which provides scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to help 1,700 needy children choose private schools within the District. Scholars with Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute stated in an October 2005 report that most parents seem happy with their children’s new schools and believe their children now are expected to meet higher academic and disciplinary standards. They believe tutoring and mentoring could help their children make the transition to more challenging schools.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

To read the Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s report, “Parent and Student Voices on the First Year of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program,” visit