June 16, 2000

June 16, 2000 | Commentary on Education

School-Choice Hypocrites

School-choice bills keep foundering in Congress. Yet many of the lawmakers denying poor children a chance to escape failing public schools send their own kids to private schools.

Earlier this year, we surveyed members of Congress on school choice. Eighty-six percent of House members responded, as did 93 of the 100 senators. Among respondents with school-age children, 40% of House members and 49% of senators send or have sent at least one child to private school.

Lawmakers who serve on committees with jurisdiction over educational issues are the most likely to send their children to private schools. Of survey respondents with children, we found that 61% of Senate Finance Committee members and 43% of House Ways and Means Committee members choose a private school for their children.

Yet many of these same lawmakers oppose school choice bills. A recent attempt by Rep. Dick Armey (R., Texas) that would have enabled children in dangerous schools to attend the school of their choice was voted down 257-166. Fifty-seven of the 257 "no votes" came from members who exercise school choice for their own children. Had they voted for choice, the amendment would have passed 223-200.

A proposal by Rep. Thomas Petri (R., Wis.) that would have allowed states to attach federal Title I Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding to poor students and let them redeem the funds at a school of choice, failed by a vote of 228-191. Forty-eight members who responded to the survey and practice school choice voted against this proposal.

Meanwhile, a modest attempt by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R., Ga.) to expand education savings accounts to cover K-12 educational expenses at a public, private, or religious school passed 61-37 on March 2 -- not enough to override President Clinton's likely veto. Had all the senators who practice school choice voted for that amendment, it would have passed with a veto-proof 71 votes.

Members of Congress's ethnic-minority caucuses are out of step with their constituents -- at least when it comes to voting. In recent years, support for choice has skyrocketed among minorities. A 1999 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 60% of black Americans support school choice. But members of the Congressional Black Caucus are avid opponents of school choice -- even though 28% of Black Caucus members told us they send their own kids to private schools.

Likewise, a 1997 Joint Center survey indicated that 65.4% of Hispanics support school vouchers. But Congressional Hispanic Caucus members remain overwhelmingly opposed to school choice, while 14% of caucus members chose private schools for their own kids.

The hypocrisy doesn't end on Capitol Hill. Both Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore argue that vouchers would undermine the public schools. Yet both have sent their own children to elite Washington-area private schools.

As members of Congress and the administration send their children off to private schools, they should ask themselves why poor kids should be denied the same opportunity.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former senior education policy analyst and Jennifer Garrett is a education analyst at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) .

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Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal.