President George W. Bush is a strong
supporter of school choice for parents. In the budget he recently
submitted, the President called for a $50 million school choice
demonstration project and a tax credit for parents whose children
are trapped in failing schools.
issue will gain more attention now that the Supreme Court has taken
up the constitutionality of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring
Program (CSTP), which has enabled more than 4,000 low-income
children to attend a school of choice since 1995. This case could
change the face of school reform by confirming once and for all the
constitutionality of choice, ultimately benefiting not only
low-income, disadvantaged school children in Cleveland, who have
only a 1 in 14 chance of graduating on time and at grade level, but
children in public schools across America.
Despite the President's strong support for
school choice, many Members of Congress effectively deny poor
school children the educational opportunities their own children
enjoy. Of the high percentage of Members who now send or at any
time have sent a child to private school, many continually vote
against legislation that would enable parents of poor children
trapped in failing or unsafe public schools to exercise the same
choice. Many, such as Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), whose
daughter Chelsea had attended an elite secondary private school in
Washington, D.C., argue that giving vouchers to disadvantaged
children to attend a school of choice would undermine public
Two of the Senate's wealthiest members, Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA)
and John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), voted against school choice but
provided their own children with a private education. Such rhetoric
is common on Capitol Hill.
Consider how Members voted on amendments
to the House and Senate bills that reauthorized federal spending on
the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (see Table 1).
House Amendment 57 to the No Child Left
Behind Act (H.R. 1) proposed by Representative Richard Armey
(R-TX), which would have allowed children in low-performing and
dangerous schools to attend a school of choice, was defeated by a
vote of 155-273 on May 23, 2001. Of the 273 Members who voted
against the amendment, 69 had sent or were sending at least one
child to private school. Had these Members voted for the amendment
instead, it would have passed by a vote of 224-204.
House Amendment 58 to H.R. 1, also
proposed by Representative Armey, would have authorized up to five
school choice research demonstration projects to evaluate the
impact of school choice on the academic achievement of
disadvantaged students. This amendment also was defeated on May 23,
2001, by a vote of 186-241. In this case, 58 of the 241 Members who
voted against it had exercised private school choice for their own
children. Had they voted for choice instead, the amendment would
have passed by a vote of 244-183.
Senate Amendment 536, an amendment to the
Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1) proposed by
Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) to fund a low-income school choice
demonstration program, failed by a vote of 41-58 on June 12, 2001.
At that time, 13 of the Senators who voted against the amendment
had sent or were sending their children to private school. Had they
voted to provide the same option to low-income families who needed
that choice the most, the amendment would have passed by a vote of
failure to approve measures to enable all children to benefit from
the best school environment possible makes less and less political
sense, especially in light of growing public support for school
choice among Americans, particularly parents and minorities.
Surveying Congress on School Choice
2001, researchers at The Heritage Foundation surveyed Members of
Congress to determine whether they practice or have ever practiced
private school choice for their children, as a follow-up to a
similar survey conducted in 2000.
results of the survey (see Tables 2 and 3) demonstrate that private
school choice continues to be an important option for Members of
Congress who have school-age children--especially those in the
House and Senate who serve on committees with jurisdiction over
education spending. The percentage of Members of Congress who send
their children to private school remains disproportionate to that
of the general populace:
- Whereas only 10 percent of the general
populace send at least one child to private school, in 2000, 40
percent of Representatives and 49 percent of Senators with
school-age children responded that they had sent children to
private school; in 2001, the numbers climbed slightly, with 47
percent of Representatives and 50 percent of Senators with
school-age children affirming that they had exercised the private
school choice option.
specifically, in 2001:
- 43 percent of members of the House Ways
and Means Committee who have children and 32 percent of members of
the House Education and the Workforce Committee who have children
exercised private school choice;
- 50 percent of members of the Senate
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who have children
and 53 percent of those on the Senate Finance Committee who have
children exercised private school choice;
- 38 percent of Members with children who
represent the congressional districts with the 10 largest U.S.
cities exercised private school choice; and
- 35 percent of members of the Congressional
Black Caucus with children and 33 percent of members of the
Congressional Hispanic Caucus with children chose to send at least
one child to private school.
Although Members of Congress are more
likely to exercise private school choice than are most other
Americans, many of these lawmakers have not supported bills that
would enable other parents--particularly low-income parents who
cannot afford to send their children to another school--to exercise
that same option.
Growing Public Support for School
Although many Members of Congress continue
to oppose measures that would give disadvantaged and
underperforming students greater chances to succeed, surveys have
indicated that there is growing support among Americans for
educational choice, particularly among minorities.
recent survey conducted for the National Education Association, for
example, revealed that 63 percent of respondents supported the
President's proposal to allow parents of children in chronically
failing schools to use public dollars to send their children to a
school of choice. This finding confirms the
results of a similar nationwide poll conducted in 2000 by the Joint
Center for Political and Economic Studies, in which approximately
half of the respondents favored the use of vouchers for tuition at
private and religious schools.
Polls show particularly strong support for vouchers among parents.
An August 2001 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll revealed that 52 percent
of the parents of children in public school supported proposals
that would allow them to choose the schools their children
1999 poll conducted by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa (a professional
teachers' association opposed to vouchers) found that support for
vouchers among parents of public school students had increased from
48 percent in 1994 to 60 percent in 1999.
Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup findings may underestimate support for
vouchers among parents as well as the general population, however.
In March 2002, Stanford University professor Terry Moe questioned
Phi Delta Kappa's survey numbers. According to an article in The
Washington Post, Moe accuses the organization of "cooking the
questions" by dropping a neutrally worded survey question in 1991
that showed increasing support for school choice and replacing it
with a question that was "deliberately worded in a way 'sure to
elicit negative responses.'" When Gallup tested an "improved"
version of the question last year, it found support for vouchers
"topped" 62 percent.
finding is more in line with an April 2001 survey released by the
group Parents in Charge, which found that 82 percent of parents
wanted to be in charge of their children's education, while 72
percent believed that the competition resulting from choice would
improve education. The number of Milwaukee
children attending private schools under the state's school choice
program has exceeded 10,000, providing strong evidence that parents
like school choice. Additionally, Florida's
John M. McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities
currently provides nearly 4,000 scholarships--four times the number
provided for the 2000-2001 school year.
Another example of the strong desire of
parents to choose the schools their children attend is an
overwhelming response to scholarships offered by private
foundations. The Children's Scholarship Fund, for example, which
awarded its first scholarships in 1997, now provides over 40,000
scholarships to low-income children around the country. Over 1.25
million low-income parents in over 20,000 communities have applied
for these scholarships.
Charter schools have also exploded in
popularity since the first one opened a decade ago. Today, over
2,300 charter schools in 38 states and the District of Columbia
educate over 575,000 students. Most charter schools have
waiting lists. One public school teacher in Brooklyn, explaining
why she sends her child to a charter school, declared, "You can't
get successful students out of the old model of public education
that's now being used. You need innovation and new ideas and that's
what choice in school brings."
Surveys repeatedly show that the strongest supporters of
choice are low-income and minority parents whose children are
trapped in failing public schools. A poll conducted in 2000, for
example, found that 70.4 percent of African-American parents
earning below $15,000 a year support school choice.
national poll conducted in November 2000 by the Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies, a leading African-American think
tank, found that blacks are more likely than whites to think that
public schools are getting worse. Of the 57 percent of blacks
overall who support school vouchers, 75 percent are under the age
of 35 and 74 percent have children at home.
2001 Joint Center study found that while 69 percent of black
elected officials oppose vouchers, 60 percent of African-Americans
generally support them. Among those under the age of 50, support
for vouchers rises to 70 percent, suggesting a possible
generational shift in voting patterns. Some of the nation's most
prominent African-American leaders--including former Atlanta Mayor
Andrew Young, Southern Christian Leadership Conference President
Martin Luther King III, and former Colorado NAACP President Willie
Breazell--also support choice.
Democrats who represent areas with large numbers of underachieving
schools and have expressed their support for school choice include
Kenneth L. Johnson, an AFL-CIO member and vice-president of the
Milwaukee School Board; State Representative Dwight Evans, chairman
of the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee; Milwaukee Mayor
John Norquist; and Reverend Floyd Flake, former U.S. Representative
from New York. In September 2000, the
Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) began a public
relations campaign to highlight the importance of choice for
children in inner-city communities. Its compelling advertisement,
that "School choice is widespread, unless you're poor," is
resonating strongly with families that are most likely to be
shortchanged by public education.
July 2001 survey by Opiniones Latinas, an affiliate of McLaughlin
and Associates, found that over 73 percent of Hispanics believe the
government should provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to low-income
families dissatisfied with their children's public schools, which
would allow children in these families to attend better public,
private, or religious schools. A 1999 survey conducted by
the Hispanic Business Roundtable indicated that 63 percent of those
polled favored implementing in their own states a voucher program
similar to Florida's school choice program for students in failing
September 2001 poll of New Jersey residents found that 60 percent
of the respondents favored vouchers for low-income students.
Support was slightly higher among urban and minority residents.
Whites favored vouchers by 59 percent to 31 percent, while
non-whites favored them by 62 percent to 27 percent. Urban
residents favored vouchers by 71 percent to 21 percent. People with
annual incomes under $25,000 favored vouchers by 70 percent to 21
percent. Pollster Patrick Murray reported, "One thing is clear,
parents do prefer choices for children in education."
School choice is gaining popularity not only among parents and
minorities, but also among schoolteachers. A 2000 survey conducted
by the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, for example, found
growing support for vouchers among the families of teachers, with
57 percent of such respondents favoring vouchers. And a 1995
survey conducted by the Center for Education Reform indicated that
urban public school teachers are more than twice as likely to send
their own children to private schools as are other Americans in
is important to note that there is a significant difference between
the personal sentiments of teachers and the stance of the leaders
of the unions that purport to represent them. In spite of the
rising support for choice among teachers, the National Education
Association and the American Federation of Teachers remain
staunchly opposed to school choice and continue to stifle parents'
efforts to have a greater voice in their children's education.
example, in California, union leaders led a successful campaign to
defeat Proposition 38, an initiative that would have allowed
vouchers for children to attend a private school of choice. In a
remarkable response, State Senator Ray Haynes (R-36th Dist.)
introduced legislation to equalize options for school choice for
economically disadvantaged parents who are subject to a de facto
financial limitation on their choice of schools. California Senate
Bill 715 would have required public school teachers to send their
own children to public schools. The statewide teachers
unions strongly opposed the legislation.
movement to empower more parents to choose the schools their
children will attend is gaining ground in large part because of the
problems plaguing public education. School choice, a prominent
campaign issue last year, continues to be at the center of the
national debate on education reform. As Representative John Boehner
(R-OH) has observed,
Americans support giving parents the power
to do what they think is best for their children's education. The
President's plan gives this power as a last resort to the parents
of children trapped in chronically failing schools after those
schools have been given every opportunity to change. A solid
majority of Americans support this policy.
support will grow with the mounting evidence that shows that school
choice improves achievement, challenges public schools to improve,
and enables low-income children to escape poorly performing
schools. Yet, as Heritage Foundation surveys of Members of Congress
reveal, many opponents of school choice send their own children to
private schools. They would be hard-pressed to explain why the same
educational option should not be afforded to parents whose children
attend substandard schools. Parents are right to expect that
Members of Congress who exercise private school choice with their
own children preach and support school choice for others.
is Research Associate for Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage
Foundation. Domestic Policy Interns Kathleen Sullivan, Amy Daum,
Kate Nattrass, Allyson Cady, and Phillip Brenner assisted with the