September 4, 2007 | Backgrounder on Education
Many Members of Congress value the opportunity to choose a safe and effective school for their own children, yet many of these same Members consistently oppose school choice legislation that would give the same opportunity to other families. For example, Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) have been outspoken opponents of school choice initiatives even though both have sent their children to private schools.
Since 2000, The Heritage Foundation has conducted several surveys of Members of Congress to determine how many Senators and Representatives practice school choice by sending their children to private school. In 2007, The Heritage Foundation updated this survey and found that 37 percent of Representatives and 45 percent of Senators in the 110th Congress sent their children to private schools-almost four times the rate of the general population.
Based on the survey results, if all of the Members who exercised school choice for their own children had supported school choice in policy, every major legislative effort in recent years to give parents school choice would have passed. Congress should support policies that give all families the opportunity to choose the best school options for their children.
The Parental Choice Survey of Members of Congress
In 2007, The Heritage Foundation conducted a survey of Members of Congress to determine the percentage that practice private school choice. The Heritage Foundation conducted similar surveys in 2000, 2001, and 2003, and the results show that private school choice continues to be an important option for elected leaders' families. (See Table 1.)
The 2007 survey found that the percentage of Members of the 110th Congress who practice private school choice is disproportionate to the general populace, since only 11.5 percent of American students attend private schools. Also of note, Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who represent populations that have fared poorly academically in public schools and that stand to benefit the most from educational options, showed particularly high rates of practicing school choice.
Notable findings include the following:
Between January 22, 2007, and February 22, 2007, The Heritage Foundation contacted the staff of each Representative and Senator to ask whether the Member has children and, if so, whether they 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 categorized as having exercised school choice.
Because the 2007 survey was conducted in the same way as the 2003 survey, if a Member did not respond to the 2007 survey request, 2003 data were used whenever possible. If no data were available from either survey and the Member did not respond, the Member was included in the "no response" category.
Using this methodology, the response rate for the survey was 69 percent for Representatives and 72 percent for Senators.
Since 2001, Congress has considered multiple initiatives to expand parental choice in education. In 2001, during the first congressional debate over No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the House of Representatives voted down an amendment that would have given scholarships to students attending low-performing or dangerous public schools by a vote of 155 to 273. During the Senate debate over NCLB, the Senate rejected a pilot program to provide scholarships to low-income students by a vote of 41 to 58.
Based on the 2003 survey, each of these amendments would have passed if Members who exercised school choice for their own children had voted in favor of the school choice initiatives.
School Choice Developments Since 2003
Since the 2003 survey, Congress has taken an historic step to empower parents by creating the first federal school voucher program for disadvantaged children in Washington, D.C.
In 2004, the House of Representatives passed legislation to give low-income students in the District of Columbia who are trapped in low-performing public schools the opportunity to apply for a scholarship to attend a private school of choice. The D.C. Choice Incentive Act of 2003 (H.R. 2556) passed by only one vote (209-208) as part of H.R. 2765. The vote was largely along party lines: Only 15 Republicans voted against it, and only three Democrats voted for it.
The Senate passed the measure by a vote of 65 to 28 as part of an omnibus spending bill (H.R. 2673). Opposition to the voucher program led some Senators to oppose the overall spending bill, and Senator Kennedy and other Democrats held an anti-voucher rally immediately after the vote. Vowing to repeal the voucher program, he proclaimed: "Even after this vote, don't bank on vouchers coming to D.C." However, opponents have not succeeded in repealing the program.
Instead, the legislation created the first federally funded voucher program, now known as the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. More than 1,800 students, with an average family income of $21,100, are using opportunity scholarships to attend 66 participating private schools in Washington. Approximately 11 percent of eligible low-income students have applied for a scholarship.
The D.C. scholarship program is an important step toward parental choice in education. Despite serving only a limited number of students, a school choice program in the nation's capital is a model for the rest of the country.
Researchers have produced two key reports analyzing the program's effectiveness.
Academic achievement studies of similar voucher programs have been positive. Eight random-assignment studies of five school voucher and tuition scholarship programs compared the performance of students who were awarded scholarships to attend private school through a lottery system to the performance of their peers who entered the lottery but did not receive scholarships and therefore remained in public school. According to education researcher Jay Greene, all but one of these studies found that students using scholarships to attend private schools performed significantly better academically, and every study found some positive academic effect. For example, two randomized-experiment studies of the Milwaukee school voucher program have found that students who received vouchers through a lottery made academic gains when compared to their peers who remained in public school. Similar studies of private school choice programs in other cities (e.g., Charlotte, New York City, and Washington, D.C.) reached similar conclusions.
Additional Progress for School Choice
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program represents a significant policy advance at the federal level, but the most important progress is being made at the state level. Twelve states and the District of Columbia offer publicly funded private-school choice programs.
The number of states offering private school choice will increase because of the 2007 state legislative sessions. In May, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (R) signed into law a special-needs scholarship program, and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R), signed into law a nearly universal school voucher program. Implementation of Utah's program has been delayed by voucher opponents, who mounted a successful petition drive to put the measure to a referendum. Utah voters will decide the future of the program in November 2007.
Regardless of the outcome of the Utah referendum, the number of students benefiting from school choice options will increase in 2008 because other states, including Pennsylvania, have expanded their existing programs to include more students. Currently, an estimated 150,000 students are participating in private-school choice programs across the country.
The Benefits of School Choice
For the Members of Congress who exercise school choice, the benefits of allowing parents to choose a safe and effective school for their children should be obvious. In addition, a growing body of research and practical evidence shows that school choice programs are working:
School Choice Proposals in the 110th Congress
During the 110th Congress, Members will have opportunities to maintain and expand parental choice in education. For example, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program receives annual appropriations and is set to expire in 2008.
If all Members of Congress who have sent their children to private schools voted in accordance with the choices they have exercised personally, the program would be reauthorized with a healthy margin. Over 37 percent of House Democrats have practiced school choice, but 96 percent of Democrats who practiced school choice voted against the voucher program.
In addition, parental choice will be part of the reauthorization debate over No Child Left Behind. Representative Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) have introduced the Empowering Parents Through Choice Act (H.R. 1486). This legislation would provide low-income students trapped in schools labeled as "restructuring" or "failing" under NCLB with a scholarship to attend a private school of choice. If each of the Representatives who practice school choice were to join with those who have traditionally supported school choice, the Empowering Parents through Choice Act would also pass.
Parents, the public, and Members of Congress have shown that they value allowing parents to choose a safe and effective education for their children. According to a 2007 survey conducted by The Heritage Foundation, 37 percent of U.S. Representatives and 45 percent of U.S. Senators sent their children to private schools-roughly four times the rate of the rest of the population.
Regrettably, many families-unlike Members of Congress-simply do not have the financial means to send their children to private schools, especially after paying taxes to support public education. Members of Congress should support policies that give all families the opportunity to choose the best school options for their children.
Evan Feinberg is a Research Assistant in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation. John Lavoie and Elizabeth Smitham, Heritage Foundation interns, contributed to this report.
 For examples, see
Karen DeWitt, "The New Presidency: Chelsea's School; Sidwell Is
Often Chosen by Capital's Elite," The New York Times,
January 6, 1993, p. A14; Deroy Murdock, "A Friendship Killer,"
National Review, September 22, 2003, at www.nationalreview.com/murdock/
murdock200309221702.asp (May, 21, 2007); and Carrie L. Lukas, "The Choice of Private Schools," Independent Women's Forum, February 1, 2004, at www.iwf.org/issues/issues_detail.asp?
ArticleID=467 (May 21, 2007).
 Survey respondents were assured that the results would not be attributed to individual Members of Congress.
 Survey results reflect individuals who have or have had school-age children. For more detailed survey results, see the Appendix.
 Krista Kafer and Jonathan Butcher, "How Members of Congress Practice School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1684, September 3, 2003, at www.heritage.org/Research/Education/BG1684.cfm; Jennifer Garrett, "Another Look at How Members of Congress Exercise School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1553, May 22, 2002, at www.heritage.org/Research/Education/BG1553.cfm; and Nina Shokraii Rees and Jennifer Garrett, "How Members of Congress Practice School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1377, June 13, 2000 at www.heritage.org/Research/Education/BG1377.cfm.
 Author's calculation based on enrollments in public and private schools in 2005, reported in U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2006, NCES 2006-030, Chap. 1, at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d06/ch_1.asp (August 29, 2007).
 Blacks and Hispanics score significantly lower than their Caucasian peers on measures of long-term academic achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, "The Nation's Report Card: National Assessment of Educational Progress," Web site, at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard (August 28, 2007). Polling data show support for school choice among minority populations. For example, see Latino Coalition and Hispanic Business Roundtable, "National Survey of Hispanic Adults," July 24, 2001; Sari Horowitz, "Poll Finds Backing for D.C. School Vouchers; Blacks Support Idea More Than Whites," The Washington Post, May 23, 1998, p. F1; and press release, "New Evidence Shows Bipartisan Support for School Choice Programs in Florida by Registered Latino Voters," Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, October 17, 2006, at www.hispanicprwire.com/news.php?l=in&id=7283 (August 28, 2007).
 For a full breakdown of survey statistics, see the Appendix.
 See H. Amdt. 57, 107th Congress, 1st Sess.
 See S. Amdt. 536, S. Amdt. 357, and S. Amdt. 358, 107th Congress, 1st Sess.
 "Overdue Spending
Bill Wins Approval in Senate," The Seattle Times, January
23, 2004, at http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/
display?slug=spend23&date=20040123 (August 28, 2007).
 Washington Scholarship Fund, "D.C. School Choice Program Sets Record for Enrolled K-12 Students in Third Academic Year," September 26, 2006, at www.washingtonscholarshipfund.org/092606.asp (June 18, 2007).
 Stephen Q.
Cornman, Thomas Stewart, and Patrick J. Wolf, "The Evolution of
School Choice Consumers: Parent and Student Voices on the Second
Year of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program," Georgetown
University Public Policy Institute, School Choice Demonstration
Project, May 2007, pp. viii, 19, and 34, at www.georgetown.edu/research/scdp/files/
Consumers%20PSV.pdf (August 28, 2007).
 Patrick Wolf, Babette Gutmann, Michael Puma, Lou Rizzo, and Nada Eissa, "Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After One Year," U.S. Department of Education, June 2007, at /static/reportimages/5934629565E68B2BB241236EA9991A85.pdf (July 24, 2007).
 Jay P. Greene, Education Myths (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), pp. 150-154.
 Alliance for
School Choice, "Governor Perdue Signs Special Needs Scholarship
into Law," May 18, 2007, at www.allianceforschoolchoice.org/more.aspx?IITypeID=3
&IIID=3347(May 21, 2007).
 Alliance for
School Choice, "Pennsylvania Expands School Choice Program by $16
Million," July 18, 2007, at www.allianceforschoolchoice.org/more.aspx?IITypeID=3
&IIID=3396 (August 30, 2007).
 Anemona Hartocollis, "Private School Choice Plan Draws a Million Aid Seekers," The New York Times, April 21, 1999, p. A1.
 For examples, see Dan Lips, "The Impact of Tuition Scholarships on Low-Income Families: A Survey of Arizona School Choice Trust Parents," Goldwater Institute Policy Report No. 187, December 11, 2003, at www.goldwaterinstitute.org/Common/Files/Multimedia/392.pdf (August 28, 2007); Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster, "Vouchers for Special Education Students: An Evaluation of Florida's McKay Scholarship Program," Manhattan Institute Civic Report No. 38, June 2003, at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_38.htm (June 18, 2007); and Stacey Bielick and Christopher Chapman, "Trends in the Use of School Choice, 1993 to 1999," NCES 2003-031, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics Statistical Analysis Report, May 2003, p. 25, at /static/reportimages/05BA3E4E0563E7096E8A4555D4D970C5.pdf (June 18, 2007).
 Greene, Education Myths, pp. 150-154.
 Author's calculation based on U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Clerk, "Final Vote Results for Roll Call 490," and The Heritage Foundation, school choice survey of the Members of the 110th Congress, January-February 2007.
 Howard P. McKeon (R-CA), "The Empowering Parents Through Choice Act," Dear Colleague letter, March 13, 2007, at http://republicans.edlabor.house.gov/PRArticle.aspx? NewsID=89 (August 28, 2007).