On the same day that the president discussed income inequality during his State of the Union address, I introduced legislation that would allow $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million low-income children to any public or private accredited school of their parents’ choice.
This is a real answer to inequality in America: giving more children more opportunity to attend a better school.
This legislation would redirect $24 billion, or 41 percent of the dollars now directly spent on federal K-12 education programs. Often these dollars are sent to wealthier schools, but my legislation would benefit only children of families that fit the federal definition of poverty, which is about one-fifth of all school children.
Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years. Last year, $33 billion in federal Pell grants and $106 billion in loans followed students to public and private colleges. Since the GI Bill began in 1944, these vouchers have helped create a marketplace of 6,000 autonomous higher education institutions – the best in the world.
Our elementary and secondary education system is not the best in the world. U.S. 15-year olds rank 28th in science and 36th in math. I believe one reason for this is that while more than 93 percent of federal dollars spent for higher education follow students to colleges of their choice, federal dollars do not automatically follow K-12 students to schools of their choice.
Instead, money is sent directly to schools. Local government monopolies run most schools and tell most students which school to attend. There is little choice and no K-12 marketplace, as there is in higher education.
Importantly, my proposal is not a federal mandate. Washington is full of politicians who fly an hour or an hour-and-a-half from their home town, and they get here and think they have suddenly gotten smarter.
I very much believe in school choice, but it should not be mandated from Washington. So, under “Scholarships for Kids,” states still would govern pupil assignments, deciding, for example, whether parents could use their federal scholarships at private schools.
Already 16 states have begun a variety of innovative programs supporting private school choice, supplemented by private organizations. Allowing $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million children to whatever school they attend would enable other school choice innovations, in the same way that developers rushed to provide applications for the iPhone platform.
I unveiled my proposal last month at the American Enterprise Institute alongside Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who has introduced the CHOICE Act, which would allow11 billion other dollars the federal government now spends through the program for children with disabilities to follow those 6 million children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services.
A student who is both low income and has a disability would benefit under both programs. Especially when taken together with Senator Scott’s proposal, “Scholarships for Kids” constitutes the most ambitious proposal ever to use existing federal dollars to enable states to expand school choice. I can think of no better way to help children move up from the back of the line than by allowing states to use federal dollars to create 11 million new opportunities to choose a better school.
Lamar Alexander is a Republican U.S. senator representing Tennessee.