WASHINGTON – School choice is the "real answer to income inequality," Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) argued Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute. The senators have both introduced school choice bills to provide poor, disabled and military families with scholarships to attend the school of their choice.
"Central to our country is the principle of equal opportunity," Alexander said, "and creating an environment where as many Americans as possible can be at the same starting line. I believe this scholarship is a real answer to income equality, to give more people a chance to seek the American dream, because it gives more children more opportunity to attend a better school."
Alexander's bill, the "Scholarships for Kids Act," would redirect 41 percent of the federal government funding for K-12 education, or $24 billion, into school vouchers for low-income students. States would have the option of whether to participate. Alexander estimates that the vouchers would be worth about $2,100 and could help 11 million low-income students.
Scott's bill, "Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act" or "CHOICE Act," would expand Washington, D.C.'s school choice program, provide school choice options for students with disabilities, and fund a pilot school choice program for military families that live on military bases. If passed, five bases would be chosen for the program in which the families would be given scholarships, $8,000 for elementary school and $12,000 for secondary school, to attend a school of their choosing.
Alexander pointed out that a sizable portion of the federal education dollars he wants to divert to vouchers currently goes to schools in wealthy neighborhoods that are already well-funded. His bill, though, would ensure that the money would go directly to help those who most need it.
The money "would benefit only children who fit the federal definition of poverty," he said, which includes about one in five K-12 students.
Some proponents of school choice argue such programs would improve the quality of schools by introducing competition among the schools for the voucher dollars. If that were to be a benefit, though, school choice would need to be expanded beyond just the poor students.
In response to a question from The Christian Post, Alexander said he would like to see school choice programs expanded to the middle class, adding that wealthy families already have school choice because they can afford to go to any school. Alexander also believes, though, that is an issue for states, not the federal government, to address, and that school choice programs should not be mandated by the federal government.
Teacher unions and their Democratic supporters in Congress have opposed school choice programs. Given that Democrats control the Senate, the bills are unlikely to come up for a vote. Alexander suggested, though, that the lack of support for his legislation among Democrats could be used in the 2014 elections to help elect more senators who would support school choice.
The U.S. Justice Department had tried to stop a school choice program in Louisiana, arguing that the program would be a setback for civil rights. After Republicans accused the administration of trying to keep poor kids in failing schools, the DOJ backed off. The Christian Post asked Scott, the only black Republican in Congress, about that effort.
"My first reaction was laughter," Scott explained.
"What we should ask ourselves," he added, is "if failing schools produce failing students that don't have opportunities in the job market, will we then keep kids trapped on that path? Fortunately for the federal government ... common sense prevailed. I hope that's the reason [that the DOJ backed off]. I doubt that's the reason."
The AEI event was held during School Choice Week, when events will be held around the country to advocate for school choice policies. AEI will hold another event Thursday, "School Choice: Encouraging new and better schools," which can be watched via webcast. The Christian Post will also cover that event.