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Backgrounder #1377 on Education

June 13, 2000

How Members of Congress Practice School Choice

By and

One of the most controversial proposals for educational reform in America today is school choice. To most Americans, allowing parents to send their children to a school of choice may seem fundamental to efforts to ensure that children receive the best education; yet the right to do so continues to be hotly debated in the political arena. Indeed, while surveys show that the strongest supporters of choice are low-income parents whose children are trapped in failing public schools, many of those who oppose efforts to give parents this fundamental right are blessed with the means to select the schools their children attend. This is particularly true with many Members of Congress.

Earlier this year, researchers at The Heritage Foundation conducted a survey of Members of Congress on school choice.2 Of those who responded to the survey,3 40 percent of those in the U.S. House of Representatives who have school-aged children, and 49 percent of those in the Senate who have school-aged children, send or have sent at least one of their children to private school. Each attempt to pass a bill to give the rest of America's parents--especially low-income parents--this same right to practice school choice, however, has faced staunch opposition from many of these same Members of Congress. Parents are right to ask their representatives on Capitol Hill why the rest of America's children should not enjoy the same opportunity.

HOW THE SURVEY WAS CONDUCTED

To discern how many Members of the 106th Congress exercise--or have exercised--school choice, Heritage analysts asked the staff of each member of the House and Senate the following survey questions:

  • Does the Member have any school-age children?

  • If the response is "no," does the Member have children?

  • Do any of the Member's children attend, or have they ever attended, private schools?

If responses to the survey questions were not given immediately, interviewers called the Member's office at least three additional times to request a response.

Methodology. For purposes of survey tabulation, Members of Congress who have sent at least one child to private school at one time or another were judged to have exercised the private school option. This category includes Members who send or have sent some of their children to public schools and others to private schools. It also includes Members whose children are or were home schooled. The "No Response" category includes Members (or staff) who refused to indicate where their children attend or have attended school, and those who did not return repeated phone calls.

Response Rate. The rate of response to the survey was high: 86 percent of the members of the House of Representatives responded to the questions, as did 93 percent of the members of the Senate (see Table 1).

HOW MEMBERS EXERCISE CHOICE

The results of the survey indicate that school choice is an important option for many parents who have been elected to Congress. Specifically, of respondents with school-aged children:

  • 40 percent of members of the House and 49 percent of members of the Senate send or have sent at least one of their children to a private school.

Moreover, the survey found that members of the House and Senate who serve on the committees that have jurisdiction over educational issues are the most likely to send their children to private schools. Of survey respondents with children:

  • 61 percent of Senate Finance Committee members and 57 percent of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee members send or have sent their children to private school;

  • 43 percent of House Ways and Means Committee members and 33 percent of House Education and Workforce Committee members took advantage of the opportunity to choose a private school for their children;

  • 33 percent of Members who represent the congressional districts of the 10 largest U.S. cities have chosen the private school option; and

  • 28 percent of the Black Caucus and 14 percent of the Hispanic Caucus chose to send their children to private schools.

HOW MEMBERS VOTE ON CHOICE

Despite the high percentage of Members of Congress who send their children to private schools, many of these Members do not support legislation to enable parents of poor children trapped in failing public schools to exercise the same right to choose a private school.

For example, a recent attempt by Representative Richard Armey (R-TX) to allow children in dangerous schools to attend a school of choice failed by a vote of 166 to 257.4 Fifty-seven Members who exercise school choice for their own children voted against this amendment. Had they voted for choice, the amendment would have passed 223-200.

A proposal by Representative Thomas Petri (R-WI), which 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 191 to 228.5 Forty-eight of the Members who responded to the survey and practice school choice voted against this proposal.

In the Senate, a modest attempt by Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA) to expand education savings accounts to cover K-12 educational expenses at a public, private, or religious school of choice passed by a vote of 61 to 37 on March 2, but it failed to attract the supermajority needed to override President Bill Clinton's likely veto. Had all the members of the Senate who practice school choice voted for that amendment, it would have passed with an additional 10 votes, far exceeding the supermajority needed.

SUPPORT FOR SCHOOL CHOICE AMONG MINORITIES AND TEACHERS

In recent years, support for choice has skyrocketed among minorities. A 1999 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading African-American think tank, found that 60 percent of African-Americans support school choice. This includes two-thirds of black baby boomers and over 70 percent of blacks under age 35.6 Yet only 5.8 percent of black Americans enroll their children in private schools.7 Moreover, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are avid opponents of school choice.

A 1997 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies survey indicates that a majority of Hispanics (65.4 percent) support school vouchers.8 Additionally, a recent survey conducted by the Hispanic Business Roundtable indicates that 63 percent of those polled favor implementing a voucher program similar to Florida's school choice program in their state.9 Meanwhile, Congressional Hispanic Caucus members remain overwhelmingly opposed to school choice.

School choice is gaining popularity not only among minorities, but among school teachers as well. A 1995 study by the Center for Education Reform indicates that urban public school teachers are more than twice as likely to send their children to private schools as are other Americans.10 The same survey indicates that 87 percent of respondents agree that parents should have the right to choose the school they want their child to attend.11 Further, a recent survey conducted by the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute indicates growing support for vouchers among teachers; 57 percent of respondents who have a teacher in their immediate family support vouchers.12 Yet the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers--powerful teachers unions that lobby Congress--remain staunchly opposed to school choice.

CONCLUSION

School choice offers families--particularly low-income families--an opportunity to help their children escape the worsening ills of America's urban schools. Many congressional opponents of choice send their own children to private schools. Yet they and other opponents of choice offer the parents of children attending troubled inner-city schools little explanation as to why they should not be afforded the same educational choices Members of Congress give their own children.

Meanwhile Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) has noted:

[W]hen you have an area in the country--and most often here we are talking about inner cities--where the public schools are abysmal or dysfunctional or not working and where most of the children have no way out, it is legitimate to ask what would happen to the public schools with increased competition from private schools and what would happen to the quality of education for the children who live there.13

The Clinton Administration argues that vouchers to give disadvantaged children an opportunity to attend a school of choice would undermine the public schools. Yet both the President and Vice President have sent their own children to elite Washington, D.C.-area private schools. According to Vice President Gore, "vouchers would be a historic mistake by draining money away from public schools."14

As Members of Congress send their children off to school and prepare to vote on school choice legislation, they should consider: Are the decisions they make for American children compatible with their decisions for their own children's education?

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former Senior Policy Analyst in Education and Jennifer Garrett is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


1. The authors thank Christopher Taylor, domestic policy research intern, for his outstanding contributions to this report. They also thank Amber Williams, Production Coordinator for lectures and seminars at The Heritage Foundation, and Heritage interns Kwinn Kelley and Marc Martinez, who helped conduct the survey.

2. The survey was conducted between February and May, 2000.

3. The response rate for members of the House of Representatives was 86 percent. In the Senate, the rate was 93 percent.

4. The vote on the Student Results Act, an amendment to H.R. 2, occurred on October 21, 1999.

5. Ibid.

6. See Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Web site at http://www.jointcenter.org/selepaper/poll_edu99.htm

7. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, October 1998.

8. See Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies at http://www.jointcenter.org/selpaper/poll_ch.htm

9. See Hispanic Business Roundtable Web site at http://www.hbrt.org/preleases/000120a.htm

10. Center for Education Reform, "Study Indicates Public School Teachers More Than Twice as Likely to Send Their Children to Private School," News Alert, May 30, 1995.

11. Ibid.

12. See Pioneer Institute Web site at http://www.pioneerinstitute.org/research/policy/piodrct8.cfm

13. "District of Columbia Appropriations Act," Congressional Record, September 30, 1997, p. S10192.

14. Michael Lynch, "Gore Bashes School Vouchers," Reason Online, February 2000.

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