Republicans in Congress are pushing for school choice policies that allow parents to direct public funds to private schools, as education savings accounts, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships gain momentum in GOP-dominated state legislatures.
Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House advocated for a slate of school choice policies throughout a two-hour Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education subcommittee hearing titled “School Choice: Expanding Educational Freedom For All” on Tuesday, April 18.
The push for expanded school choice goes hand in hand with a parallel Republican push for state and federal “parental rights” policies that allow parents a greater say in school curriculum, school library book selections, and more.
One of the policies touted at the hearing, the Educational Choice for Children Act, which Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., reintroduced in January alongside Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Burgess Owens, R-Utah, would establish a tax credit scholarship program for students whose families make under 300 percent of their state’s median income.
The federal government would set aside $10 billion annually to fund tax credits for charitable donations to nonprofits that provide scholarships to K-12 students. That funding level would make it one of the largest federal education programs, behind Title I at $18.4 billion and special education at $15.5 billion.
Families could use the money to pay for private school tuition and tutoring programs, Smith said during the hearing.
“Parental involvement leads to better outcomes for students,” Smith said. “As legislators, we have a responsibility to encourage more parental involvement in education, not less. School choice is one way to do that.”
Hearing focuses on key GOP priority
School choice has been a top priority on the Republicans’ education agenda, alongside their push for parental rights.
Last month, House Republicans passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, which explicitly states that parents have the right to review school curriculum, be heard by school boards, and examine district budgets, all of which school districts already allow parents to do.
The hearing also comes as more Republican-controlled states pass school choice laws, often in the form of education savings accounts or school choice vouchers. As of March 9, 32 states had laws providing an estimated $4 billion in tuition vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax-credit scholarships, according to FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank that studies education policy.
So far this year, four states have passed laws creating or expanding education savings account programs, which allow parents to use per-pupil funds to pay for private school tuition, education therapy services that help with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, home schooling, and other education expenses.
In his opening remarks, Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla., who chairs the subcommittee on early childhood, elementary, and secondary education, likened school choice to deciding between toothpaste and shampoo options at Walmart.
“Americans know that one size does not fit all, and we want individual choice,” he said. “Our kids’ education is no different.”
Throughout the hearing, Republicans said school choice policies like tax credit scholarship and voucher programs are the best way to give students in failing schools access to better education.
Denisha Allen, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group, spoke at the hearing about how Florida’s tax credit scholarship program allowed her to attend a private Christian school.
That school ignited a love for learning, Allen said.
“School choice is a rising tide that lifts all boats,” she said. “My life is a reflection of that.”
Democrats raise concerns about accountability
The Republican view of school choice as a solution to failing schools doesn’t sit right with Democrats, however, who argue that choice policies fail to hold private schools accountable and support the students proponents say they will help.
“What we are talking about here today is decades of disinvestment,” Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., said. “I agree that it is not fair that only wealthy parents should be able to decide where they send their [children to] school. I think the answer to that is to make all of our public schools the best that they can be.”
Education law experts have also raised concerns about discrimination through school choice programs. Private schools are not held to the same anti-discrimination laws and requirements to serve students with disabilities that govern public schools, Derek Black, an education law professor at the University of South Carolina, said during the hearing.
“Evidence suggests that some of these schools are in fact discriminating against students at admission as well as providing questionable curriculum,” Black said.
Black also pointed to a growing number of education savings accounts and voucher policies that provide public per-pupil funds directly to families to help pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses. Those programs, which often used to be limited to students with disabilities and low-income students, are now or will be available to all or virtually all students in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Utah, and West Virginia.
“No matter what, private schools continue to pick and choose from student applicants based on academic credentials and other factors such as behavioral history,” Black said. “The net results are publicly financed programs that help to sort, segregate, and stratify students into demographic silos.”