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School Choice Smackdown? Two Big Supporters May Jockey for Senate Seat

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 24, 2017 3 min read
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Two Indiana GOP congressmen could be rivals for the Senate in 2018, and school choice might be an automatic winner.

Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, longtime advocates for public and private school choice, are both strongly rumored to be seeking the Republican spot to face off against incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year. In February, Rokita introduced legislation to create a federal tax credit for donations to groups providing scholarships to private schools. And earlier this year, Messer indicated his continuing support for converting federal dollars for public schools into vouchers.

Neither is officially running for the Republican nomination for Senate yet, but there’s already bad blood betwen the two: They’ve started trading accusations about “lies” and “baggage.” They’re also sparring about fundraising power.

So will the two lawmakers bring up school choice if they do run for Senate, and will they try to one-up each other somehow? Indiana GOP Rep. Robert Behning, the chairman of the Indiana House education committee and a big backer of Indiana’s various choice policies, said it depends on the context.

In a statewide race, he noted, both could raise the issue to address voters in urban areas, where there are more school choice opportunities. But right now, he noted, neither Messer nor Rokita represents a big population center in their respective congressional districts, so it would require something of a rhetorical shift for both lawmakers. And while Rokita, the former Indiana secretary of state, has, unlike Messer run a statewide race, Messer (a former member of the Indiana House) has been more active in education circles in Indiana, according to Behning.

Regardless, the state lawmaker is still pleased by the prospect that they are in lockstep with his views on K-12.

“It’d be great to have someone in the Senate that thinks more like me,” said Behning, who said he hasn’t endorsed either for Senate but has been lobbied by both lawmakers.

As for education issues other than school choice, Behning said Rokita might be more likely to highlight his role in getting the Every Student Succeeds Act through Congress in 2015.

“I can see Todd using ESSA and the fact that he was involved in helping negotiate less federal intervention in education,” Behning said. “I don’t know that I see them using school choice as something they’re battling over.”

On their campaign websites, which don’t specifically mention the Senate race, Messer and Rokita promote school choice. Rokita also stresses his conservative approach to the issue: “I believe Washington has no business in our children’s classrooms, and I have worked diligently and successfully to give the power of educating our children back to those who know best, our parents and teachers.”

Work in Congress

Rokita is the chairman of the K-12 subcommittee on the House education committee. (Both lawmakers are on the full House committee.) Compared to Messer, Rokita has the more recent education feather in his cap when it comes to action in Congress: He was the lead sponsor of the resolution that repealed the Obama administration’s accountability rules for ESSA.

Meanwhile, Messer has been perhaps the biggest proponent in Congress of allowing students to take some federal K-12 funding and use it at the public or private schools of their choice—known in Washington jargon as “Title I portability.” Trump’s campaign tapped Rob Goad, who at the time was a staffer in Messer’s office, to oversee education issues. Messer’s also served as president of School Choice Indiana and got the Congressional School Choice Caucus started. Messer is physically, as well as rhetorically, animated about school choice: Back in January, he led a group of students in cheers and scarf-waving during a School Choice Week lobbying event on Capitol Hill.

It’s not all bad blood all the time between the two lawmakers. In 2015, Messer and Rokita teamed up to come down hard on then-Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz for the way she was handling federal charter school money in Indiana.

Behning said he likes the idea of a federal tuition tax credit for private school choice (generally along the lines of what Rokita’s proposed), although he stressed that any such program has to address key issues such as eligibility.

“The devil is in the details,” Behning said.

Photos from left: Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., in 2015 (Andrew Harnik/AP); Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. (Darron Cummings/AP)

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