The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1553 on Education

May 22, 2002

May 22, 2002 | Backgrounder on Education

Another Look at How Members of Congress Exercise School Choice

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.

The 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.1

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 schools.2 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 54-45.

The 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.3

Surveying Congress on School Choice

In 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 2000.4

The 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.

More 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 Choice

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.

A 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.5 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.6

Support Among Parents.
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 attend.7 A 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 1999.8

The 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.9

This 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.10 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.11 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.12

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.13 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."14

Support Among Minorities.
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.15

A 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.16

A 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.17 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.18

Key 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.19 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.

A 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.20 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 schools.21

A 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."22

Support Among Teachers.
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.23 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 urban areas.24

It 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.

For 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.25 The statewide teachers unions strongly opposed the legislation.

Conclusion

The 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.26

This 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.

Jennifer Garrett 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 survey.


1. Clint Bolick, Vice President and Director of State Chapter Development, Institute for Justice, speech given at Empower America, February 13, 2002.

2. See statements on Senate Amendment 536 to the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1), Congressional Record, June 12, 2001.

3. Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D., Jennifer J. Garrett, and Janice A. Smith, eds., School Choice 2001: What's Happening in the States (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2001).

4. If a Member did not respond to the survey in 2001 but had responded in 2000, the response from 2000 was used.

5. "New Poll for NEA Shows Majority of Americans Back President Bush's Approach to School Choice," press release, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Cong., 1st Sess., March 8, 2001.

6. "Blacks v. Teachers," The Economist, March 10, 2001. See also Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, "The Black Vote in 2000," at http://www.jointcenter.org/whatsnew/index.html.

7. Center for Education Reform Newswire, August 22, 2001. For full report, see Phi Delta Kappa, "33rd Annual Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools," at http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0109gal.htm.

8. See Phi Delta Kappa, "The 31st Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools," at http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/kpol9909.htm.

9. Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, "Vouchers: Was a Poll Question 'Cooked'?" The Washington Post, March 12, 2002, p. A19.

10. Center for Education Reform Newswire, April 3, 2001. Parents in Charge was established by Ted Forstmann, a founder of the Children's Scholarship Foundation; see http://www.parentsincharge.org.

11. Alan Borsuk, "Choice Program Tops 10,000," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 23, 2001.

12. Lisa Fine, "Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off," Education Week, August 8, 2001.

13. Center for Education Reform Web site, http://edreform.com/school_reform_faq/charter_schools.htm (April 2002)

14. John Fund, "Will Terror Leave Us No Choice?" The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2002.

15. "Nine Lies About School Choice: Answering the Critics," Center For Education Reform, September 2000, at http://www.edreform.com/pubs/ninelies2000.htm#_edn15.

16. "Blacks v. Teachers." See also Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, "The Black Vote in 2000."

17. Center for Education Reform Newswire, July 10, 2001. For full report, see http://www.jointcenter.org.

18. Nina Shokraii Rees, School Choice 2000: What's Happening in the States (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2000).

19. Center for Education Reform Newswire, February 13, 2001.

20. Center for Education Reform Newswire, July 31, 2001. For full report, see McLaughlin and Associates Web site at http://www.mclaughlinonline.com/newspoll/results/010726his.htm.

21. See Hispanic Business Roundtable Web site at http://www.hbrt.org/preleases/990503.htm.

22. Tom Hester, "60 Percent of Jerseyans Back Vouchers, Poll Says," New Jersey Star-Ledger, November 28, 2001. For survey, see Center for Public Interest Polling Web site at http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~eaglepol.

24. Denis Doyle, "Where Connoisseurs Send Their Children to School," Center for Education Reform, May 1995.

26. "New Poll for NEA Shows Majority of Americans Back President Bush's Approach to School Choice."

About the Author

Jennifer Garrett Research Associate