Will the 106th Congress Promote School Choice?

Published April 1, 2000

Congress has engaged in a flurry of school-choice activity in recent years–and it’s likely to continue.

During the 1997-98 session, for example, Congress passed a pilot school choice program for the District of Columbia and extended education savings accounts to students in elementary and secondary schools. During that session, Congress also strengthened its charter school law so that only states with strong charter laws would receive federal funding–“strong” as defined by free-market advocates. However, only the charter school changes survived the President’s veto.

Today, the outlook for school choice is better than ever. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a left-leaning think tank that focuses on African-American issues, found in its annual survey last year that 60 percent of blacks in the general public support school choice –the highest ever.

Second, within just a few months last year, the Children’s Scholarship Fund discovered 1.25 million low-income students whose parents signed up for one of 40,000 privately funded partial scholarships to use at private and religious schools. And Florida passed the first statewide school choice plan in the nation just last spring, creating vast momentum and enthusiasm for school choice.

This year, Congress is likely to reconsider the proposals for education savings accounts and a school choice plan in Washington, DC. They are likely once again to meet a presidential veto.

Thus, the key measure to watch in this session of Congress is the reauthorization of the 36-year-old Title I program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The aim of this program, first introduced by Lyndon B. Johnson, is to close the academic achievement gap between rich and poor students by offering poor students remedial help. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s own evaluation, the program has been unsuccessful in achieving its goal.

One Title I reform, introduced by Senator Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) and championed by education historian Diane Ravitch, would offer interested states the option of making the program portable. Portability would center funding on the child, so that money for remedial services, like tutoring, would follow students and be spent on programs chosen by parents, not public school bureaucrats. Gregg likely will offer his plan as an amendment to ESEA, which will be debated in the Senate this spring.

While the House was unsuccessful in attaching similar amendments to Title I last fall, House members did pass a measure that would force school districts to allow public school choice to students attending failing Title I schools. Although the measure does not provide for Title I funding to travel with the child to the new school, this is an option the Senate will consider.

Despite the gloomy prospects for enacting anything significant on the school choice front, the Presidential elections likely will keep choice in the limelight. The leading Republican candidates all have expressed support for full parental choice in education, but Vice President Al Gore, the leading Democrat nominee, already has waged an all-out battle against any expansion of choice beyond charter schools. Thus, despite what Congress manages to achieve this year, the voters will have a very clear choice to make about school choice in November.

Nina Shokraii Rees is Senior Education Policy Analyst with The Heritage Foundation and a contributing editor to School Reform News.