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Chavous: Congress Is Getting it Wrong on Parental School Choice

On March 21, several courageous United States senators — led by Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — tried to do something logical yet bold that would have helped 11 million children from low-income families actually benefit from Title I funding. Their amendment to S Con Res 8 would have created Title I portability and allow an average of $1,300 per student to follow that student to the school they attend, public or private. Speaking for the amendment, Alexander, a former governor and secretary of Education, noted that the $14.5 billion in Title I funds are supposed to go to the 11 million children from low-income families, “but it doesn’t get there.”

As usual, teachers’ unions, school boards and superintendents howled in protest and flooded Senate offices with erroneous information about the evils of parental choice and portability of Title I funds. Yet not a peep from them about the urgency of actually helping children in low-income families access a better education.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, whose own state of Iowa has had a successful tax-credit scholarship program since 2006 that now serves more than 10,400 children from low- to middle-income families, cited the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship as one reason to oppose the amendment. Harkin said: “[W]e have tried this before. The District of Columbia has a voucher program that we passed in Congress in 2003. And guess what they have found since 2003? It made no impact whatsoever on student achievement, and now the program is to the point it is being phased out.”

Harkins is wrong on two points. First, the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is one of the most studied and successful federal education programs ever. The last Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences report in 2010 showed that students who used their scholarships had a 91 percent graduation rate, 21 points higher than those who sought but did not receive a scholarship and 30 points higher than the D.C. public schools’ average. Studies have also shown significant gains in reading.

Second, while Harkin, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama would like to phase out this successful program that has served more than 6,000 children from very low-income families, the OSP was reauthorized for five years in 2011 and signed into law by the president himself. This reauthorization also ensured that D.C. public schools and public charter schools would continue to receive federal funds for school improvement in the District of Columbia. While the OSP has been heavily scrutinized, Congress is awaiting a report on how the other two sectors have spent their annual $40 million.

If Congress and the administration are really serious about ensuring every child, regardless of ZIP code or family income, gets a quality education, the delivery system shouldn’t matter. Whether it is a public, charter, private, magnet, virtual or home school — parents should be able to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs.

Kevin P. Chavous serves as executive counsel for the American Federation for Children.

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