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Republicans Are Moving Quickly to Introduce School Choice Bills

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 02, 2017 3 min read
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It’s unclear whether President Donald Trump’s $20 billion federal voucher plan will get a lot of traction in Congress, or what form it might ultimately take. But don’t mistake that for a lack of overall enthusiasm among GOP lawmakers for expanding school choice during the Trump administration.

Let’s start with a bill that hasn’t yet been introduced but could be on the way. At a National School Choice Week event last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that Trump’s plan was an endorsement of a bill he and Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., previously introduced called the Scholarships for Kids Act. Introduced in 2014, that bill would convert $24 billion in federal aid into $2,100 scholarships for 11 million students from low-income backgrounds.

“I hope the president will support that,” Alexander said, noting that his legislation got the endorsement of 45 senators. “With his support, perhaps it can get more [votes].”

That could be difficult, however, given that in last November’s elections, Democrats (who are normally strongly opposed to vouchers at the federal level) picked up two seats in the Senate. The Senate voted down Alexander’s proposal in 2015 by a vote of 52 against and 45 in favor.

Asked if he would bring the legislation up again this year before the Senate education committee, Alexander responded, “Sure.” As of early Thursday, we hadn’t seen Alexander or Messer reintroduce that bill.

While Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for education secretary, can’t vote for such choice bills, her nomination seems to have provided political energy to Washington politicians looking to expand vouchers or similar programs. The House education committee has scheduled a hearing on the “power of school choice” Thursday morning.

‘The Future of Our Children’

Last Tuesday, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act, or the CHOICE Act. The bill would provide “startup funds” to choice programs aiming to serve students with disabilities, and would also allow states that already have choice programs for such students to use federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act money to support them. This provision would impact about 6 million students between the ages of 6 and 21, according to Scott.

Other provisions of the bill would expand choice to children of military families at Department of Defense schools, and makes clear that students from low-income backgrounds already in private school in the District of Columbia are eligible to participate in the district’s Opportunity Scholarships program. The expansion of that voucher program in the nation’s capital could be a relatively easy way for the GOP to expand choice.

“I look forward to working with soon to be confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on this bill and other issues critical to the future of our children,” Scott said in a Wednesday statement. There are seven co-sponsors of the bill, including Alexander and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who like Alexander and Scott are on the Senate education committee.

There’s companion legislation in the House, written by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind.

Last week, the Senate also passed Scott’s resolution declaring a “National School Choice Week” from Jan. 22 to Jan. 28, 2017, although this resolution doesn’t have any policy impact. It coincided with the “National School Choice Week” series of events in Washington and around the country. Trump also issued a similar proclamation to this effect last week.

Then there’s the Choices in Education Act introduced last month by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. This bill would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and turn federal funding for schools into vouchers for parents to use for their children at public and private schools, or to use for home schooling.

King introduced a similar bill in September 2016—when he introduced that legislation, he said in a statement that, "As the spouse of a former Iowa teacher, I understand that it’s the right thing for our children to take their education decision[s] out of the hands of the federal government and put it back in the hands of parents who know how best to meet the educational needs of their students.”

In December, we wrote about various ways Congress could expand choice without using vouchers. There could also be legislation (separate from Scott’s) specifically designed to expand the ranks of the D.C. voucher program pretty soon.

And we’ll leave you with a bit of history: Almost exactly 25 years ago, the Senate rejected a voucher bill.

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