The Heritage Foundation

Education Notebook on Education

February 4, 2008

February 4, 2008 | Education Notebook on Education

Congressional Hypocrisy on School Choice

Congressional Hypocrisy on School Choice

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By Evan Feinberg

In his final State of the Union Address, President Bush called on Congress to rescue disadvantaged children from failing public schools. Unfortunately, most politicians on Capitol Hill continue to deny poor children the same opportunities they support for college students and, most importantly, their own children.

President Bush proposed the "Pell Grants for Kids" initiative to give low-income children the same thing that college students get - federal scholarships to attend a school of their choosing. He also highlighted the success of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which has helped thousands of low-income kids escape failing schools in the nation's capital. 

When it comes to higher education, nearly everyone supports boosting scholarship options. Through the federal Pell Grant program, 5.3 million students last year received need-based scholarships totaling $14 billion for college tuition, fees, and other expenses.  Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle regularly champion efforts to boost funding for the program.

At the K-12 level, many Members of Congress support school choice - that is when it comes to their own children. In 2007, The Heritage Foundation surveyed Members of Congress to see how many sent their own children to private school. With more than two-thirds of Members responding, the survey found that 37 percent of House members and 45 percent of Senators had sent at least one of their children to private school.

Many of these lawmakers live in Washington, D.C., but few of them send their children to its public schools, where barely half of the students graduate.

Most families don't have the option of private education. The family budget doesn't include room for school tuition after taking care of the necessities and paying taxes to support the local public school. While wealthier families can exercise school choice by moving to better school districts, low-income families often cannot afford this option. Children in such families are bound by their zip-code to attend unsafe, low-performing schools.

For these reasons, poor children often attend lower quality schools than kids from middle-class families - not to mention the offspring of Members of Congress, who make $169,300 a year.

The simple solution is to provide low-income families with scholarships to attend a school of their parents' choice. Across the country, nearly 150,000 children are getting scholarships through such programs this year.

The benefits of school choice are hard to ignore. Academic studies of scholarship programs in cities like Milwaukee show that participating kids have made academic gains compared to their peers who stay in public school. According to surveys, parents become more satisfied with their children's school and more involved in their education. Researchers have even found that public schools improve when they are forced to compete for students.

In 2004, when Congress was considering the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, many Members didn't see the hypocrisy in denying poor families the same options that they take for granted. In fact, 96 percent of surveyed Democrats who voted against the program had sent their own child to a private school.

If the Members of Congress who support Pell Grants or choose private school for their own children were willing to give poor families the same opportunity, many more children in Washington, D.C., and across the country could be rescued from low-performing schools. Unfortunately, Congressional hypocrisy stands in the way of giving families the school choice options they sorely need. 

Evan Feinberg is a Domestic Policy research assistant at the Heritage Foundation,

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