School Choice Makes Mark on Congress as NCLB Looms

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US Senator Tim Scott (R- South Carolina) is hopeful that the Republican Senate takeover will give his bill, the School Choice Act, more momentum. Scott pushed the bill through again in Congress last week with its refiling coinciding with the new term of Congress and National School Choice Week.

Scott began his journey last year in order to create more and better options for students on military bases, disabled students, and students in low income communities. Schuyler Kropf, writing for The Post and Courier, reports that the bill is being brought after Scott sponsored, and saw passed, a school choice week resolution.

During this same time period, hundreds of students and supporters rallied at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. to back school choice. Gov. Nikki Haley spoke to the group by reading a proclamation declaring this as S.C. School Choice Week.

“We want to make sure that you and your parents can always choose the best way to be educated,” she told the crowd.

Scott’s bill, known as the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act, has garnered multiple Republican sponsors.

The bill’s purpose is to encourage states to provide start-up funds for the design and implementation of a disability choice program; to create pilot programs on at least five military bases without Department of Defense Education Activity schools in order to provide scholarships to students in military families on the base; to use excess carry-over funds to increase promotion and outreach and to develop more scholarships.

Kristine Harvigsen, communication director for the S.C. Education Association, says the word “choice” is considered by many to be a code word for supporting educational vouchers.

“We do not support directing public taxpayer money to private institutions,” she said. “These are really badly needed resources for public schools.”

Scott said he would like to see a world where voucher funds could be used for both private and public schools, but he sees little chance of a private school voucher proposal passing in Congress. He stated that he is unsure if he would advocate for it publicly, writes Nate Madden of CatholicPhilly.

At this time, there are 13 states and the District of Columbia that have some form of voucher program and about the same number have some form of educational tax credits used to support the creation of scholarships for K-12 students. New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan this month said the education tax was critical for “the future of countless children across this state,” because “expanding educational opportunities is a clear matter of social justice.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of events in dozens of states were held in support of School Choice Week.  The Washington Free Beacon’s Mary Lou Boyd writes that the reason for the push for school choice is the demand of parents who are not satisfied with the performance of their children’s assigned public school. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a partner of NSCW, states that charter schools have been an important option for students for over the last 20 years with more than 2.7 million students attending 6,500 charter schools across the country.

A recent poll released from the American Federation for Children, another partner of NSCW, shows that 69% of Americans favor the concept of school choice and 63% support private school choice. The poll showed that 76% support public charter schools and 65% believe that choice and competition among schools improve education. The poll was conducted by Beck Research, a Democratic firm.

“The poll clearly shows widespread support, among voters of both political parties as well as independents, for school choice. Any public official—or potential candidate for president—who ignores these numbers does so at their own peril,” Beck said in a release.

Unions, the NAACP, and left-leaning Democratic groups oppose school choice, several of which have filed suits against allowing parents the freedom of choice in education.

The Senate also is continuing its efforts to rewrite the education law known as No Child Left Behind, with the portion of the law getting the most attention being teacher evaluation, and specifically the push to link teachers’ pay to student test scores. Emma Brown of The Washington Post quotes Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander:

“Finding a way to fairly reward better teaching is the Holy Grail of K-12 education, but Washington will get the best long-term result by creating an environment in which states and communities are encouraged, not ordered, to evaluate teachers,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is leading the rewrite effort as chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The law expanded the role of the federal government in US education in 2002, particularly when it required annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school.