US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Op-ed by Sen. Alexander in National Review Online: 11 Million $2,100 'Scholarships for Kids': A Real Answer to Inequality

Wednesday, February 12, 2014Liz Wolgemuth 202-228-4729

By Sen. Lamar Alexander

February 12, 2014

On the same day that the president discussed income inequality during his State of the Union address, I introduced legislation that would allow $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million low-income children to any public or private accredited school of their parents’ choice.        

This is a real answer to inequality in America: giving more children more opportunity to attend a better school.

The “Scholarships for Kids Act” will cost $24 billion a year – paid for by redirecting 41 percent of the dollars now directly spent on federal K–12 education programs. Often these dollars are diverted to wealthier schools. “Scholarships for Kids” would benefit only children of families that fit the federal definition of poverty, which is about one-fifth of all school children.

Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years. Last year, $33 billion in federal Pell grants and $106 billion in loans followed students to public and private colleges. Since the GI Bill began in 1944, these vouchers have helped create a marketplace of 6,000 autonomous higher-education institutions — the best in the world.

Our elementary and secondary education system is not the best in the world. U.S.15-year-olds rank 28th in science and 36th in math. I believe one reason for this is that while more than 93 percent of federal dollars spent for higher education follow students to colleges of their choice, federal dollars do not automatically follow K–12 students to schools of their choice.  

Instead, money is sent directly to schools. Local government monopolies run most schools and tell most students which school to attend. There is little choice and no K–12 marketplace as there is in higher education.       

Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin often wrote that American creativity has flourished during “fertile verges,” times when citizens became more self-aware and creative. In his book Breakout, Newt Gingrich argues that society is on the edge of such an era and cites computer handbook writer Tim O’Reilly’s suggestion for how the Internet could transform government.  

“The best way for government to operate,” O’Reilly says, “is to figure out what kinds of things are enablers of society and make investments in those things. The same way that Apple figured out, ‘If we turn the iPhone into a platform, outside developers will bring hundreds of thousands of applications to the table.’”

Already 16 states have begun a variety of innovative programs supporting private school choice. Private organizations supplement these efforts. Allowing $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million children would enable other school-choice innovations, in the same way that developers rushed to provide applications for the iPhone platform.

Senator Tim Scott (R., S.C.) has proposed the CHOICE Act, allowing 11 billion other dollars the federal government now spends through the program for children with disabilities to follow those 6 million children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services.

A student who is both low-income and has a disability would benefit under both programs. Especially when taken together with Senator Scott’s proposal, “Scholarships for Kids” constitutes the most ambitious proposal ever to use existing federal dollars to enable states to expand school choice.

Under “Scholarships for Kids,” states still would govern pupil assignment, deciding, for example, whether parents could choose private schools. Schools chosen would have to be accredited. Federal civil-rights rules would apply. The proposal does not affect school lunches. So that Congress can assess the effectiveness of this new tool for innovation, there is an independent evaluation after five years.

In the late 1960s, Ted Sizer, then Harvard University’s education dean, suggested a $5,000 scholarship, in his “Poor Children’s Bill of Rights.” In 1992, when I was U.S. education secretary, President George H. W. Bush proposed a “GI Bill for Kids,” a half-billion-federal-dollar pilot program for states creating school-choice opportunities. Yet, despite its success in higher education, voucher remains a bad word among most of the K–12 educational establishment and the idea has not spread widely.

Equal opportunity in America should mean that everyone has the same starting line. Allowing states to use federal dollars to create 11 million new opportunities to choose a better school would help children move up from the back of the line.

— Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee, was U.S. Secretary of Education for President George H. W. Bush (1991–93).

 

     

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