Policies that give parents the ability to exercise
private-school choice continue to proliferate across the country.
In 2009, 14 states and Washington, D.C., are offering school
voucher or education tax-credit programs that help parents send
their children to private schools. During the 2007 and 2008
legislative sessions, 44 states introduced school-choice
legislation. In 2008, private-school-choice policies
were enacted or expanded in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana,
Pennsylvania, and Utah--made possible by increasing bipartisan
support for school choice.
On Capitol Hill, however, progress in expanding parental choice
in education remains slow. Recent Congresses have not implemented
policies to expand private-school choice. In 2009, the 111th
Congress has already approved legislative action that threatens to
phase out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a federal
initiative that currently helps 1,700 disadvantaged children attend
private schools in the nation's capital.
Congress's Own School Choices
At the same time, many Members of Congress who oppose
private-school-choice policies for their fellow citizens exercise
school choice in their own lives. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL),
the chief architect of the language that threatens to end the OSP,
for instance, sends his children to private school and attended private
Since 2000, The Heritage Foundation has surveyed Members of
Congress to determine whether they had exercised private-school
choice by ever sending a child to private school. In 2009, this
survey was updated for the new Congress. This survey included a new
element--whether members themselves had ever attended private
school. The new survey revealed that 38 percent of Members of the
111th Congress sent a child to private school at one time. (See
Appendix Table A-1.) Of these respondents,
- 44 percent of Senators and 36 percent of Representatives had at
one time sent their children to private school;
- 23 percent of House Education and Labor Committee Members and
nearly 40 percent of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Committee Members have ever sent their children to private
- 38 percent of House Appropriations Committee Members and 35
percent of Senate Finance Committee Members have ever sent their
children to private school; and
- 35 percent of Congressional Black Caucus Members and 31 percent
of Congressional HispanicCaucus Members exercised private-school
choice.(See Chart 1.)
The survey also showed that 20 percent of Members had attended
private school themselves. (See Appendix Table A-2.) Among average
citizens, approximately 11 percent of American students are
enrolled in private schools. These survey results suggest that Members
of Congress are significantly more likely than the general public
to choose private schools for their own children and to have
attended private schools themselves.
Private-school choice is a popular practice among both
congressional Republicans and Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of
House Republicans and 34 percent of House Democrats have ever sent
their children to private school. In the Senate, 53 percent of
Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats have exercised
private-school choice for their children. Thirty five percent of
Congressional Black Caucus Members have sent a child to private
school. Only 6 percent of black students overall attend private
Members' Educational Backgrounds
In 2009, Heritage also surveyed private-school attendance by the
Members of Congress themselves. Many were beneficiaries of a
private secondary education. Seventeen percent of responding
Senators and 20 percent of responding Representatives attended
private high schools. Overall, 20 percent of Members of Congress
attended private school, nearly twice the rate of the American
public. Specifically, 20 percent of responding Senate Democrats
attended private school, as did 13 percent of Senate Republicans.
Similarly, 21 percent of House Democrats attended private high
school along with 20 percent of House Republicans.
The 2009 study examined two facets of school choice: 1) whether
Members of Congress practiced private-school choice for their
children, and 2) whether they were themselves beneficiaries of a
private secondary education. Some Members attended private school
and also chose that option for their children. Of respondents who
themselves went to private school and had children, 64 percent
chose to send a child to private school.
The 111th Congress will have the opportunity to enact policies
that give parents greater ability to choose the best school for
their children. Specifically, Congress could reform major programs
like No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act to give states the option of using federal funding to
give parents vouchers to send their children to a private school of
their choice. In addition, Congress could support private-school
choice by expanding education savings accounts and reforming other
social programs to allow greater parental direction.
One opportunity to maintain and expand private-school choice
would be by reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
The D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003 provided additional
funding for public and charter schools in Washington, D.C. The act
also created the OSP, the first federally funded school voucher
program in the country. Through the OSP, low-income children are
awarded tuition scholarships worth up to $7,500 to attend private
schools. In the current 2008-2009 school year, the program is
helping more than 1,700 children attend a private school of their
Recent legislative activity in Congress is threatening the
future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. In March,
President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Appropriations Act of
2009 (H.R. 1105), which requires reauthorization by Congress as
well as authorization by the D.C. City Council in order for the OSP
to continue. So, without a reauthorization vote by
Congress, children would no longer be able to receive scholarships
after the 2009-2010 school year, ending the successful program. As
the omnibus legislation was considered by the Senate, Senator John
Ensign (R-NV) offered an amendment that would have struck the
reauthorization requirement. The amendment was voted down in the
Senate 39-58. According to the Heritage Foundation's
survey of Congress, Senator Ensign's amendment would have been
approved if Members who exercised school choice for their own
children had voted in favor of the amendment. Congress is expected
to consider reauthorization this spring.
Why Congress Should Support Private
Across the country, state and local policymakers are
increasingly enacting private-school-choice programs. Eleven states
and the District of Columbia now offer voucher programs, and seven
states offer scholarship tax credits. Private-school scholarship
programs benefited approximately 171,000 children in 2008--a growth
of 89 percent since 2004. Recent experience suggests that
school-choice policies are gaining momentum in state legislatures
across the country. From 2007 to 2008, 44 states introduced
school-choice legislation, and in 2008, both Georgia and Louisiana
enacted school-choice measures. In Georgia, a new
scholarship tax credit encourages businesses and individuals to
make donations to non-profit groups that award private-school
scholarships. In Louisiana, a school voucher program is helping
low-income children in New Orleans attend private schools.
Parental Demand for School-Choice Programs. Many parents
recognize the benefits of being able to choose a school that best
fits their child's academic needs, and school-choice programs are
popular as a result. In the nation's capital, there were four
applicants for each available slot in the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship Program since the program began in 2004; nearly 20,000
students participated in Milwaukee's voucher program in 2008; and
in Florida, more than 19,000 students with disabilities are
currently attending private schools of their parents' choice
through McKay Scholarships, which provide vouchers to attend any
public or private school in the state. Members of Congress also
recognize the positive benefits of school choice, evidenced by the
fact that they have sent their own children to private schools at a
rate far exceeding that of general public enrollment in private
Improved Family Satisfaction. Parents who are able to
exercise school choice for their children report being more
satisfied with their children's school and education than parents
whose children attend an assigned public school. Parents of
children attending a chosen public school--in districts offering
public-school choice or with public charter schools--or private
school are also more satisfied with the teachers, academic
standards, and discipline, compared to parents of children in an
assigned public school. In Washington, D.C., the OSP has produced
similar results. Parents of children receiving scholarships report
increased satisfaction with their children's school and overall
academic experience. Parents reported positive changes in their
children's outlook on learning, improved homework habits, and the
ability to make a choice in their children's education as the
reasons for their high levels of satisfaction. Parents of
children enrolled in school-choice programs are satisfied with
their experiences and feel that their children are safer in school
and excel academically.
Improved Academic Achievement. School choice improves
student learning. Studies of school-voucher programs have
shown that children benefit academically from the opportunity to
attend a private school. Students enrolled in the popular D.C.
OSPimproved academically and achieved higher reading levels than
students who had not been awarded a voucher.
Encouraging Public School Improvement. School choice
boosts improvement in public schools through competition. Research
has shown that competition spurred by school choice has had a
positive effect on public education in Arizona, Michigan, and
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. School choice programs demonstrate that
parents want more from public schools, improving the overall
effectiveness of public education. When families are provided
with a choice in their children's education, public schools are
pushed to offer a product that meets their needs and are no longer
able to stay in business by virtue of existing as the only
educational game in town.
Supporting Private School Choice in
the 111th Congress
Members of Congress have the opportunity to protect and expand
private-school choice during the 111th Congress. To begin, Members
can--and should--support the reauthorization of the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship Program to continue to give low-income
families in the nation's capital the power to choose a safe and
effective school for their children. If all of the Members of
Congress who either attended private school or chose a private
school for their own children support the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship program, its reauthorization will be assured.
Average citizens and Members of Congress alike have shown that
they value the educational opportunities that school choice
provides, and that they recognize the importance of a safe and
effective education for their children. This is especially true for
Members of Congress, many of whom learned this lesson early when
they enjoyed their own private education. The 111th Congress has
embraced school choice in practice--with 44 percent of the Senate
and 36 percent of the House having ever sent their children to
private school. Furthermore, 21 percent of Senators and 20 percent
of Representatives attended private high schools themselves.
While Members of the 111th Congress have embraced school choice
for their own families, they should also support policies that give
other families the opportunity to choose their children's schools.
All families should have the opportunity to send their children to
a school that is safe and offers a quality education.
Lindsey Burke is a Research Assistant in the Domestic Policy
Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation. Gregory Markle
and Leigh Sethman, Heritage Foundation interns, contributed to this
As of April 1, 2009, there were 531 filled congressional seats.
Due to four pending races at the time of survey collection,
Congress did not comprise a full 535 members. In the Senate, 58
Democrats and 41 Republicans comprised the 99 elected members at
the time of this survey. One disputed race in Minnesota between
Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman was unresolved. In
the House, 254 Republicans and 178 Democrats comprised the 432
elected members. Three seats were vacated by Presidential
appointments, and had yet to be filled at the time of publication.
The seats of President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Kristen
Gillibrand, who resigned from the House to fill the Senate seat
vacated by Hillary Clinton, and Hilda Solis, who was appointed as
Secretary of Labor, remain unfilled and account for the
three-Member discrepancy in the House.
In addition, there are currently two Independents in
Congress--Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT) and Senator Bernie Sanders
(VT). Both Senators caucus with Democrats, so for the purposes of
this survey, they are counted as Democrats.
The Heritage Foundation conducted two separate surveys to
determine how Members of Congress practice private-school choice
for their children and to determine the private-school-choice
history of the Members themselves. For both surveys, Members were
informed that their names and identifying characteristics would
Methodology relating to how Members of Congress
practiced school choice for their children. Information on
where Members of Congress sent their children to school was gleaned
from previous iterations of the Heritage survey, when available,
and from calls placed to the offices of new and returning Members
of the 111th Congress. Prior responses were combined with new
information to obtain the highest response rate possible. To obtain
information on whether Members of Congress sent their children to
public or private school, three methods were employed in the 2009
survey: 1) placing calls and e-mail inquiries directly to
congressional offices, 2) conducting open-source searches on the
Internet, and 3) using information from previous Heritage
Members were specifically contacted if they were part of the
freshman class of the 111th Congress; had provided a "no" answer in
previous versions of the Heritage survey, meaning they had not yet
sent a child to private school; or had in previous versions of the
survey indicated that their children were not yet of school age (in
those cases, Heritage later contacted the Members again). After
these categories of Members were contacted by phone, open-source
searches were conducted in order to obtain any missing information.
Open-source searches included Member biographies, Members'
congressional Web sites, campaign Web sites, and newspaper
Between February 13 and March 13, 2009, The Heritage Foundation
contacted the staff of new Members of the 111th Congress and
existing Members from whom a previous survey response had not been
obtained. Staff were asked whether the Member had children and, if
so, whether those children had at any point in their elementary and
secondary education attended private school. Members were
classified as having exercised private-school choice if they had
sent at least one child to private school at any point in time.
Using this methodology, which included calls and e-mails placed to
congressional offices, information from previous versions of the
Heritage survey, and information gleaned from open-source searches,
the response rate for the survey was 87 percent for Senators, and
81 percent for Representatives, with an overall response rate of 82
percent for the entire Congress. This response rate was higher than
the 2007 survey response rate of 72 percent for Senators and 69
percent for Representatives.
Methodology concerning where Members themselves
attended secondary school. The private-school background of the
Members themselves was obtained primarily through open-source
searches, which included Member biographies, Members' congressional
Web sites, campaign Web sites, and newspaper articles, in
combination with calls and e-mails to congressional offices.
Members whose information was unavailable publicly were contacted
by phone or e-mail and asked if they had attended a public or
private secondary school.
Not every Member of Congress responded to the Heritage survey,
and for some Members there was no public information. In total,
information was available for 416 of 531 Members of Congress,
representing 78 percent of Congress.
Arizona, an expansion of the corporate tax credit was enacted under
a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature; in Louisiana, a
voucher program for students in New Orleans was enacted under a
Republican governor and a Democratic legislature; and, in
Pennsylvania, an expansion of the earned income tax credit was made
possible under a Democratic governor, a Democratic House, and a
Republican Senate. From "School Choice Yearbook 2008-09."
a full breakdown of survey statistics, see the methodology in the
"School Choice Yearbook 2008-09."
Lips, Marshall, and Burke, "A Parent's Guide
to Education Reform."
Patrick J. Wolf, "School Voucher Programs:
What the Research Says About Parental School Choice,"
Brigham Young University Law Review, No. 2
Lips, Marshall, and Burke, "A Parent's Guide
to Education Reform."
Feinberg, "How Members of Congress Practice
Private School Choice."