School choice and the beginnings of a conservative agenda for economic opportunity

President Obama is leaving us on the edge of our seats as to whether he will discuss certain topics in tonight's State of the Union address. But it is a near certainty that he will talk at length about economic mobility and poverty. While we think that's a good thing, we do wish the President would be more open minded toward policies with a proven track record in helping to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty, including school choice.

New legislation released today by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a complementary bill from Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) released earlier this month show that Republicans see education reform as a major part of their strategy to help our least fortunate neighbors.

Of the two proposals, Senator Alexander's Scholarship for Kids Act is the boldest and would fundamentally reshape the federal education-policy landscape in this country. He repeatedly emphasized in remarks today at the American Enterprise Institute that the program would be voluntary for states. Still, states with even limited school-choice programs could feel its impact. Much of the hype deals with the way it would bolster private-school-choice programs, but it would essentially supercharge any school-choice program, including those that allow charter schools or even public-school “open enrollment.” To do this, the bill allows approximately eleven million children to bring an estimated $2,100 scholarship to the school of their choice.

ESEA requirements dealing with assessments and reporting would remain, but many other mandates would be scrapped, as would about eighty programs, funding from which would be used to pay for the scholarships. States that chose not to participate would be held harmless.

Senator Scott's CHOICE Act, meanwhile, would expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and, in a similar fashion to the Scholarship for Kids Act, allow states to open new opportunities to children with disabilities and those living on military bases by letting them take their federal funds with them.

Unlike many previous federal school-choice proposals, including one offered by the Romney 2012 campaign, this program would require a state opt in. It seems both Scott and Alexander have followed the playbook laid out by Hoover's Koret Task Force, and thus, they do a fine job of balancing conservatives' desire to promote school choice from Washington with their desire for a limited federal role in education.

Senator Alexander often contrasts the federal role in higher education—which is big on individual choice and small on mandates—with the federal role in elementary and secondary education, which is the inverse. Why, he argues, can a poor student take a Pell grant to the institution that best meets her needs but not use federal dollars to ensure she gets a good enough education to even make it to college? The downside to this comparison is that many feel Pell grants have had a role in driving up the cost of higher education and, perhaps, could do the same in a more robust K–12 marketplace. The authors of the bill could help address this concern by, as Arizona has done with its education savings accounts, incentivizing parents to be frugal shoppers by letting them put any leftover funds into a 529 college-savings account.

The bill also faces challenges of a political nature. First, even if folks in Washington were working productively together (ha!), a Democrat Senate and White House would certainly block a major expansion of private-school choice. Senator Alexander acknowledged as much today at AEI. Rather than hopelessly try to convince his Democrat colleagues to come around on school choice, he told a questioner he would rather “elect more people who agree” with the idea. Still, there may be hope that Republicans can lay a marker down by passing the bills in the House, and Senator Scott said talks were already underway with Majority Leader Eric Cantor to do just that. And if the GOP takes the Senate in the fall and the White House in 2016…well, who knows what might happen.

With all of the challenges this bill faces, however, it is an excellent start not only in coming up with a concrete plan to expand school choice and reform education at the federal level, but also in showing the country that conservatives have the outlines of a positive, thoughtful, and compassionate agenda to help the poor. Education reform isn’t enough, but it’s a start. If Republicans are to have a strong rebuttal to Obama’s speech tonight and an honest shot at winning national elections in the coming years, they’ll need it.

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