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Here’s Who Might Fill Capitol Hill’s Upcoming School Choice Void

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 15, 2018 6 min read
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Ever since President Donald Trump took office, school choice has pretty much belly-flopped in Congress. And next year, things might get at least a little bit tougher for choice supporters.

That’s because Indiana GOP Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita vacated their seats in the House of Representatives to get the Republican nomination for Indiana’s Senate race this year. But they both lost the primary race—businessman Mike Braun won the nomination instead. So when the 116th Congress boots up in 2019, it looks like Messer and Rokita won’t be a part of it. Messer championed a tax break for parents who home school their children, and also backed a plan to let students take some federal money to the public or private schools of their choice. And Rokita has worked on legislation to create a federally backed tax-credit scholarship program.

The two lawmakers are famous for not getting along. It’s possible that the exit of these two lawmakers who fought for several years over the same piece of niche policy turf might clear the field for new advocates. Still, there’s power in numbers, and Rokita holds a fair amount of power over K-12 as the chairman of a House subcommittee overseeing elementary and secondary schools. But regardless, who might be decent candidates in the House to fill the void? Below are a few—but not an all-inclusive—set of names to consider. Spoiler alert: They’re all Republicans.

Jim Banks, R-Ind.

If you follow school choice in Washington, you’ve probably seen by now that Banks is the author of what might be one of choice’s last chances to succeed on Capitol Hill this year: a bill that would divert a portion of Impact Aid funding to education savings accounts that children connected to the military could use for different services, including private school. Banks will likely push for his legislation to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which is due to be considered in the House next week. The Heritage Foundation and its political arm have lobbied heavily in favor of the legislation, but there’s no guarantee at all it will get added to the NDAA.

Banks is also a co-sponsor on Rokita’s CHOICE Act, which aims to expand choice to children in military families, students covered by federal special education law, and others.

Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.

Curbelo served on the House education committee in the 114th Congress, but he’s no longer a member. (Neither is Banks, for that matter.) Curbelo’s a former member of the Miami-Dade district’s school board, and having made his way through Florida politics, he’s likely to be intimately familiar with the political weight school choice has in the Sunshine State.

In 2015 when the Every Student Succeeds Act was being negotiated on Capitol Hill, Curbelo touted his involvement in negotiating a final version of the law. Curbelo said at the time that what became ESSA “promotes school choice.” That turned out to be true in a handful of ways, although most states haven’t really taken advantage of these opportunities. However, keep in mind that political handicappers consider Curbelo a vulnerable GOP lawmaker in this year’s House elections.

Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.

Like Messer and Rokita, Duncan is a member of the School Choice Caucus. (Messer is the caucus chairman.) He’s spoken more than once on the House floor about National School Choice Week. In addition to co-sponsoring the legislation that authorizing the District of Columbia’s voucher program—not at all unusual for a GOP member of the House—he’s also an original co-sponsor of the A-Plus Act, which would essentially allow states to opt out of federal accountability for education and consolidate funding into block grants. Congress rejected an amendment containing the A-Plus Act when it considered ESSA in 2015.

“I believe that each state and especially parents and teachers—not Washington—should be the primary education policy makers in our country,” Duncan says on his website. “If we restore education decisions to those who are closest to our children—to those who know them best—we will create more opportunity for our students to learn and to succeed.”

Here are other GOP members of the School Choice Caucus to consider: Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, and Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana.

Tim Walberg, R-Mich.

Walberg has a few things going for him. Unlike the other three people we’ve mentioned, he’s on the House education committee, although he’s chairman of a subcommitee that doesn’t deal with schools. (While in Congress, both Walberg and Curbelo received donations from Betsy DeVos before she was nominated as education secretary.) Walberg is also a member of the Congressional School Choice Caucus.

In addition, like Duncan, Walberg has spoken at National School Choice Week events. That may not sound like much, but it’s more than many GOP House lawmakers who nominally are supportive of school choice. It also means he’s built at least some connections with the choice community in D.C., if not elsewhere. Finally, he represents DeVos’ home state, which may mean virtually nothing but probably doesn’t hurt.

Mark Walker, R-N.C.

That A-Plus Act we mentioned earlier? Walker is the one who introduced it for this Congress. He also spoke at the launch of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy last year. Heritage, you’ll remember, is an influential backer of Banks’ Impact Aid bill, and is one of the most vocal supporters of school choice in Washington.

“As conservatives we know that children succeed when parents and teachers are empowered, not the bureaucracies or the politicians,” Walker said at the Heritage launch event.

One more thing to keep in mind: There will be new members of Congress in 2019. It’s unlikely there will be a huge new wave of GOP lawmakers in the next Congress, but one of them could become a prominent school choice champion relatively quickly.

And here’s a full list of members of the Congressional School Choice Caucus, courtesy of Messer’s office:

Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga.
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.
Rep. David Brat, R-Va.
Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind.
Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.
Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc.
Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind.
Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich.
Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich.
Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C.
Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla.
Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich.
Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.

Did we leave anyone off this list? Let us know in the comments section.

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