Marco Rubio Responds to Obama Address with School Choice

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has introduced a bill to create a federal tax write-off for donations to a private school scholarship fund for poor students. Marc Caputo writes in The Miami Herald that the bill is modeled on a 2001 Florida program which was also supported by Rubio.

Rubio was one of the Republicans who responded to President Obama's State of the Union speech with a rebuttal, laying out his party's alternative goals for the year. Rubio spoke of school choice for poor families, singling out students with special learning needs as the most needy group. His press release the next day is clearly a way to follow up on his words:

Under Rubio's legislation, corporations or individuals could annually donate a maximum $100,000 or $4,500, respectively. The money, for which the donor receives a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, flows to a nonprofit "Scholarship Grant Organization," which then distributes money to private schools on behalf of thousands of students.

The proposal has not yet been analyzed or scored by the Congressional Budget Office, which will estimate its cost in lost tax revenue. But Democrats are sure to criticize the proposal for several reasons, and one will be the cost. In the same speech, Rubio called for cutting the deficit. His political opponents will point out that creating a new tax write-off is a contrary goal.

Opposition may also come from the closeness of Rubio's ties to former Governor Jeb Bush, whose foundation supports Rubio's proposal. Support from Bush will not win friends among Democrats who fear that he, or Rubio, may run for the Presidency in 2016.

On the other hand, helping disadvantaged students is a cause that is popular among many Democratic constituencies, although it is opposed by teachers' unions. Rubio's proposed scholarship bill makes it clear that those helped will have to meet a means test.

The students who qualify for the scholarship would come from families who earn 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $58,875 in a four-person household.

Jeb Bush's non-profit organization, Foundation for Excellence in Education, has supported private school voucher programs in various states. Teachers' unions vehemently oppose these lobbying efforts, saying that they erode support for public schools, where most students are still enrolled. Rubio's ties to Bush will have unions primed to bring their fight to Washington to oppose his bill.

Although improving education is a bipartisan concept, the political parties disagree sharply on how it should be done. Republicans consistently favor plans that allow public schools to lose enrollment and even be closed, in favor of their students migrating to existing private schools or new charter schools. Republican governors usually support tax-supported tuition vouchers.

This year, Ohio's Governor Kasich is suggesting pouring new funding into tuition voucher programs, making up to half of Ohio's students technically eligible. Reasons include failing grades on schools, student family poverty, and special educational needs that the public school is having difficulty meeting. Under pressure to avoid failing grades for their schools, some Ohio schools have tried tampering with test scores and student grades.

Republican Jindal of Louisiana has favored an approach heavy on use of vouchers, but the state's unions have opposed these plans. Currently, unions and other organizations are suing the state to prevent implementation of its policy. Other states are moving more cautiously.

President Obama's agenda for federal education policy has been focused on improving public education through incentive programs like "Race to the Top" programs to evaluate teachers and turn around failing schools.

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