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GOP Senators Push Big Private School Choice Bill Amid Pandemic Relief Debate

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 22, 2020 3 min read
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Two Republican senators, including the chairman of the Senate education committee, have introduced legislation to provide direct federal aid for private school scholarships to students during the pandemic, and to create permanent tax credits supporting educational choice.

The School Choice Now Act was introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a fellow committee member, on Wednesday. The legislation would provide “one-time” emergency federal funding for state-approved scholarship-granting organizations to provide families with “direct educational assistance.” This assistance would help them pay for things like private school tuition and home schooling expenses. This emergency funding would constitute 10 percent of emergency education aid for state education departments and local school districts.

In addition, the bill would create permanent tax credits of up to $5 billion annually for scholarship-granting organizations in states for similar purposes. The section of the bill dealing with these tax credits states that nothing in it “shall be construed to permit, allow, encourage, or authorize any Federal control over any aspect of any private, religious, or home education provider.”

Both those proposals have reportedly been priorities for the Trump administration during negotiations over the next virus relief package—last week, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said the administration supported such scholarships for private schools. “We’re looking at 10 percent of the money pretty much going to non-public schools, Education Freedom Scholarships,” Conway said to reporters.

Education Freedom Scholarships refers to a proposal backed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and introduced in both the House and Senate last year; neither bill has gotten traction so far.

“Many schools are choosing not to reopen, and many schools are failing to provide high-quality distance learning. The students who will suffer from this experience the most are the children from lower-income families,” Alexander said in a statement announcing the School Choice Now Act. “This bill will give families more options for their children’s education at a time that school is more important than ever.”

And Scott said the School Choice Now Act would help “ensure that all children have access to the necessary resources and opportunities—education included—to live a successful life.”

It’s notable that the bill, which is a standalone piece of legislation, appears to basically match what the Trump White House wants for K-12 in a broad coronavirus relief package that would deal with many other crucial policy issues. The School Choice Now Act could put pressure on Democrats to agree to have this or some form of expanded school choice included in any package.

DeVos quickly praised the bill on Twitter and urged lawmakers to include it in a new aid bill:

Separately, there are two votes from recent history that are also worth keeping mind.

In 2015, Alexander and Scott introduced amendments to a Senate rewrite of the main federal K-12 law that Alexander —who was also chairman of the education committee at that time—helped craft. Essentially, both those amendments would have allowed students to use federal Title I aid like a voucher. Both amendments, to no one’s surprise, failed to garner the votes necessary to be adopted; in fact, neither got a majority of votes from senators.

The amendments allowed both senators to express their support for expanded educational choice. But offering the proposal as amendments also meant that they were left out of the bill itself and did not sink the proposal, which ultimately became the Every Student Succeeds Act.

What role the School Choice Now Act will play in upcoming negotiations over virus relief remains to be seen.