Senators Tout Plans to Ramp Up Voucher Programs

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced a plan to subsidize school choice for poor kids in any state. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is narrowing his attention to students with disabilities or from military families.
by | January 28, 2014 AT 8:00 PM

A pair of Republican senators are pushing legislation to expand school vouchers at the state level.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced a $24 billion plan Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute to subsidize private and other school choices for poor kids in any state that opts into the program. His bill would also weaken No Child Left Behind by maintaining reporting requirements under the decade-old accountability law but leaving determinations about annual school progress up to the states, not the U.S. Department of Education.

Joining Alexander was South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who explained a recently introduced bill of his own that would allow states with existing voucher programs to use aid from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to supplement those programs for students with special needs. His bill would also create a pilot voucher program for children living on military bases without Department of Defense schools and expand the District of Columbia’s voucher program with money left over from existing voucher holders.

Both bills face certain opposition within the Democratic-controlled Senate in a year of midterm elections. Democrats are generally less supportive of using public money to support private schools, and Alexander’s proposal requires a significant shift in Department of Education spending that critics say would undermine education for more low-income children than the program would help. In light of President Barack Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union address, in which he’s expected to focus on inequality, the Republican senators couched their proposals as better alternatives.

“My hope is that our agenda will be to liberate the free-enterprise system, to create more jobs with good wages instead of minimum wages, to create more job training instead of perpetual compensation for unemployment and to give parents more choices of a better school for their child so the child can get an even better job,” Alexander said.

Alexander’s plan would shift 41 percent of federal K-12 spending to provide vouchers averaging $2,100 for the estimated 11 million students living below the federal poverty line. Students could use the money to attend any accredited private school, public school, charter school or public school outside their district. In the 16 states that already have private school choice programs or the 42 with inter-district public choice options, that money could supplement state-level funding.

Lamar, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993, was unsuccessful last year in an attempt to direct $14.5 billion from education funding for low-income schools toward vouchers through a budget amendment. That program for low-income schools, Title I, would inevitably face cuts under Lamar’s plan, along with other programs that benefit disadvantaged children, said Reggie Felton, interim associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. For states that don’t opt into Lamar’s program, that means less money is available for their most vulnerable populations, he said.

“It’s hard for us to believe that a $24 billion reallocation could exist without drastically reducing funding for Title I students,” he said.

Alexander said the realignment would exempt several programs: the national school lunch program, money for students with disabilities, research funding and aid for districts that consist heavily of non-taxable federal land. But that leaves money for English-language learners, rural education and a host of other programs on the chopping block, said Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association.

Critics held back on the provision giving states more authority over No Child Left Behind, endorsing the principle of greater flexibility while maintaining reservations with Alexander’s exact proposal.  Kusler said the latest proposal mirrors past ideas from Lamar, which her organization couldn’t support.

“We felt that the flexibility went so far as to give states way too much flexibility while not giving us the assurances we needed that student needs were going to be met, especially those students who historically were undeserved,” she said.

Scott’s proposal would apply to state and local governments that already have existing choice programs for students with disabilities. Currently, the federal government provides grants for students with disabilities to support services at public schools, but under Scott’s proposal that money—$11 billion—could flow to private schools. “Kids with special needs determine, with their parents help, what school best fits their needs,” he said.

Critics noted that the program already requires public schools receiving grant money to pay full tuition for a private school or another setting if the student’s needs aren’t meant, and parents can initiate that process.

The other portions of Scott’s bill would redirect $10 million from the Department of Education to create a pilot voucher program for military children living on bases without a Department of Defense school on the premises and put leftover D.C. voucher money back in the program, though it’s not clear how much money that would amount to annually and Scott’s press office did not return immediate calls for comment.