Members of Congress will soon have the
opportunity to approve legislation that will grant low-income
families in the District of Columbia the chance to choose where
their children attend school. If every Member of Congress who uses
private schools votes to give disadvantaged D.C. families the same
access, the legislation will pass. In the past three years, every
piece of parental choice legislation would have passed if those who
exercised choice in their own families had voted with supporters of
Earlier this year, The Heritage Foundation
conducted a survey of Members of Congress on school choice. Of
those who responded to the survey, 41 percent of U.S.
Representatives and 46 percent of U.S. Senators send or have sent
at least one of their children to a private school. In the
general population, only about 10 percent of students attend
private schools. Heritage Foundation surveys of Congress conducted
in 2001 and 2000 yielded similar results.
Despite the popularity of private schools
among Members of Congress, however, many of the same policymakers
who exercise choice in their own children's education have voted to
block legislation that would have given other families the same
range of options. For example, if every member of the House who
practices school choice had voted to grant similar options for
families with disabled children, Amendment 90 would have passed.
Amendment 90 to the reauthorization of the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (H.R. 1350) was a modest proposal by
Representative Jim DeMint (R-SC) to give states the flexibility to
establish innovative parental choice programs for students with
disabilities. (See Table 1.) The proposal was defeated by a vote of
182 to 240 on April 30, 2003. The Senate has not voted on parental
choice legislation this term.
Parental Choice Survey of Members of
2003, The Heritage Foundation conducted an anonymous survey of
Members of Congress to determine how many practice private school
choice. The results of the survey show that private school choice
continues to be an important option for these elected leaders. (See
Table 2.) It also remains a popular option for Members who serve on
committees with jurisdiction over education legislation as well as
those who represent minority populations.
those responding, the percentage of Members of Congress who send
their children to private schools is disproportionate to that of
the general populace:
- While only 10 percent of American students
attend private schools, 41 percent of Representatives and 46
percent of Senators responded that they had sent children to
- 45 percent of House Ways and Means
Committee members and 31 percent of House Education and the
Workforce Committee members exercised private school choice;
- 56 percent of Senate Health, Education,
Labor, and Pensions Committee and 47 percent of Senate Finance
Committee members exercised private school choice; and
- 29 percent of Congressional Black Caucus
members and 46 percent of Congressional Hispanic Caucus members
chose to send at least one child to private school.
Heritage Foundation asked the staff of each Member of the House and
Senate whether they have children and, if so, whether the children
attend or have attended public or private schools. For purposes of
survey tabulation, Members who have sent at least one child to
private school at any time were judged to have exercised the
private school option. Interviewers made three attempts to gain a
response. If no response was given, data from the 2001 survey were
used. If no data were available, the Member was included in the "No
Although Members of Congress are more
likely to exercise private school choice than are other Americans,
many of these lawmakers have not supported legislation that would
enable other parents--particularly low-income parents who cannot
afford to send their children to another school--to exercise that
the 107th Congress, the survey found similar results. In 2001,
the House of Representatives voted down two amendments to give
scholarships to children in low-performing or dangerous public
schools so that they could attend better-performing independent
schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. The Senate defeated a
similar amendment. All three amendments would have passed if
Members had voted in a way consistent with their own practices.
Likewise, in the 2000 survey, if all those who practiced school
choice had supported it for less-fortunate families, all three
parental choice proposals would have passed.
Growing Public Support for School
Although some Members of Congress continue
to oppose legislation that would give disadvantaged and at-risk
students the chance to succeed, public support is growing,
particularly among minorities, for such programs. Moreover,
existing programs enjoy a high level of parental satisfaction.
poll conducted in July 2002 by Zogby International Polling on
behalf of the Center for Education Reform found that 76 percent of
respondents "strongly" or "somewhat" supported "providing parents
with the option of sending their children to the school of their
choice--either public, private, or parochial--rather than only to
the school to which they are assigned." When asked specifically
whether they were "in favor of or against allowing poor parents to
be given the tax dollars allotted for their child's education and
permitting them to use those dollars in the form of a scholarship
to attend a private, public, or parochial school of their
choosing," 63 percent of respondents favored the proposal. Rates of
approval were even higher among minority respondents.
2002 National Opinion Poll conducted by the Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies found that 57.4 percent of
African-American respondents favored a voucher system when asked,
"Would you support a voucher system where parents would get money
from the government to send their children to the public, private,
or parochial school of their choice?"
July 2001 poll by the Latino Coalition and Hispanic Business
Roundtable found that 73.3 percent of Hispanic adults answered
"yes" when asked "should the government provide taxpayer-funded
vouchers to help low-income families send their children to a
better public, private, or church-run school?" An even larger
percentage (87 percent) of respondents supported giving all parents
a $1,000 tax credit for educational expenses, including tuition.
Support is especially strong in the
nation's capital. Shortly after former President Bill Clinton
vetoed the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1997, a bill
similar to the current voucher legislation, The Washington Post
published the results of a May 1998 poll of District residents that
found significant support for using federal dollars to send
children to private or religious schools: 65 percent of the
District's African-Americans surveyed who had incomes under $50,000
favored the option. Overall, 56 percent of District residents
supported school choice.
demand for choice is also evident in the city's higher-than-average
charter school attendance and participation in private scholarship
programs. There are hundreds of private schools in the D.C. metro
area, most with tuitions that are less than the per-pupil
expenditure in public schools.
Developments Since the Previous
Since the previous Heritage Foundation
survey, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld vouchers as
constitutional. Before the first anniversary
of the Court's decision, Colorado Governor Bill Owens signed into
law the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, which will
provide vouchers to low-income students in low-performing school
districts. Today, 11 states have enacted state-funded scholarship
programs or tax credits for education expenses or contributions to
research on the efficacy of parental choice confirms older findings
that students do as well or better at their new schools, parents
are more satisfied, and public schools improve with
According to research conducted by Harvard
University professor Paul Peterson, the academic achievement of
low-income African-American students who received scholarships
offered by the School Choice Scholarships Foundation (SCSF) rose
significantly. African-American students who participated in the
program for three years had scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills
that were 9.2 percentile points higher than the scores of students
who remained in the public schools. Students who participated in
the program for fewer than three years also experienced gains. The
study also found that parents were significantly more satisfied
with their children's new schools.
2003 Manhattan Institute analysis of the Florida A+ program found
that vouchers provided a strong incentive for schools to improve.
In Florida, schools receive grades ranging from A to F, based on
the proportion of students who pass the state's proficiency tests.
Students who attend schools that receive a failing grade twice
within a four-year period can receive a voucher to attend another
public or private school of choice. Researchers found that schools
in direct competition for students made educational gains greater
than those of other low-performing schools that are not facing
Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby also
found that increased school choice raises school productivity and
student achievement within the public school system. Hoxby's report
found that competition from charter schools in Michigan and Arizona
and from Milwaukee's voucher program has compelled public schools
to raise their productivity, as measured by students' achievement
the near future, the House of Representatives will have the
opportunity to vote on amendment to the D.C. appropriations bill
modeled after the committee-passed D.C. Parental Choice Incentive
Act introduced by Representative Tom Davis (R-VA). The proposal
would enable low-income parents in the District of Columbia to
enroll their children in private schools through a scholarship
program. Under the bill, the maximum scholarship is $7,500, and $15
million is authorized for the program.
every member of the House of Representatives who practices private
school choice votes with supporters of school choice to extend the
same access to disadvantaged students in the District of Columbia,
the amendment will pass. It will likewise pass in the Senate if
those who practice choice vote for it.
Frustrated parents and other residents, as
well as prominent elected leaders such as Mayor Anthony A. Williams
(D) and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, are calling on
Congress to pass this legislation. Despite a per-pupil expenditure
of over $12,000 and a pupil-teacher ratio of 15 to 1, D.C. students
continue to fall behind. Less than 10 percent of the District's 8th
grade students are proficient in reading, math, and science
according to national assessments, and more than half lack even a
basic knowledge of these subjects.
similar proposal was passed in 1998 under the leadership of former
Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) and Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS), Joseph
Lieberman (D-CT), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Judd Gregg (R-NH).
Speaking of the need for a scholarship program, Senator Lieberman
We believe that we have a moral obligation
to offer those children a way out. That is why many of us view this
question not just as a matter of education, but a question of
fairness. This is all about our values, specifically the value we
place on giving every child--no matter their income, where they
live or how they live--the opportunity to fulfill their God-given
Congress will soon have a new opportunity
to support these children and give to them what they give their own
children--a chance to succeed.
is Senior Policy Analyst for Education and Jonathan Butcher is
Research Assistant for Domestic Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Heritage Foundation interns Alex Potapov, Ellie Bradsher, and Bob
Nardo contributed to this report.
Poll results reflect individuals who have
or have had school-age children. For more detailed results from the
survey, see the Appendix.