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Republican Dilemma: How to Push School Choice Without Swelling Government

By Alyson Klein — July 20, 2016 3 min read
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It’s no secret that most Republicans are big fans of school choice. But they are also big fans of a lean federal government.

So how does the party push its agenda to give parents a greater array of options—including access to charters, vouchers, and education savings accounts—while not going so far as to create a “federal Department of School Choice”?

That was the central question posed Wednesday by Rep. Luke Messer, a Republican from Indiana, at a panel sponsored by the party’s Cleveland Host Committee here on the third day of the Republican National Convention.

“I’ve heard many Republicans say our education agenda should start and stop with abolishing the federal Department of Education,” Messer said. “I think the challenge, though, with that being our agenda is that it sounds to your average mom and dad like we don’t care about something that is one of the very highest priorities in their life, like whether or not their kid will have access to a high-quality education. So from [my] perspective, a great way to devolve federal power would be to empower parents.”

Messer’s preferred solution: Give the states the option of taking their federal dollars for disadvantaged students—about $15 billion annually through a program known as Title I—and using it for school choice.

That way if Massachusetts “wants to continue the existing monopoly approach"—meaning one that lacks choice—they can continue to do that, but if Indiana wants to modify the approach and empower families, we can do that.”

Educational choice, it turns out, was a theme of several convention speakers Wednesday night, including the vice-presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

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The idea of allowing federal funds to be used for school choice programs or “portability” in Beltway-speak isn’t brand new.

In fact, Messer and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., tried to get the policy included in the Every Student Succeeds Act. They were unsuccessful, in part because of opposition from teachers’ unions and Democrats, but also because not everyone in the Republican party was sold on the idea.

Messer acknowledged that school choice fans have some thinking to do about how all of this might work at the federal level.

“We need to work hard on the philosophical implications,” he said. “Much of the policy work in this movement has been done at the state level over the last couple decades.”

Messer noted though, that the school choice movement is gaining steam: Every GOP presidential candidate who spelled out his or her education agenda this time around included a choice component, he said. Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick Mike Pence—who is Messer’s home state governor—has worked to push forward on charters and vouchers, Messer said. And Trump himself has consistently praised school choice in his campaign speeches.(Donald Trump Jr., also expounded on it in his Tuesday night speech to convention delegates.)

What’s more, in Messer’s view, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is behind the eight ball on this issue. Clinton supports charter schools, but strongly opposes vouchers.

“If you listen to Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on these issues, it sounds like something that is decades old, not tied to existing realities,” Messer said. “We’re on the right moral side of this conversation. Every kid in America ought to have the opportunity to walk into a good school, but we’re also on [the side of] the right social trend. .. When you talk to millennials, 70, 80, 90 percent of millennials support educational choice.”

Messer said that if Republicans are going to move forward on a school choice agenda, they need to have data and educational outcomes to back up their approach. He noted that Indiana has posted higher graduation rates, even as it has expanded charter and voucher options, so at the very least, school choice hasn’t hindered educational progress in the Hoosier State.

And he pointed to his fellow panelist, Denisha Merriweather, who took advantage of Florida’s tax credit to attend what she says was a higher-quality private school than the public school she was slated to go to.

Merriweather, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in social work, is a political Independent who wouldn’t say which candidate she is supporting in the presidential race. But she doesn’t understand the politics surrounding vouchers.

“I love to tell my story so that people can see that most people taking advantage of a scholarship look like me,” said Merriweather, who is black.

Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., arrives before a House Financial Services committee hearing on the annual report of the Financial Stability Oversight Council last June. --Andrew Harnik/AP-File

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