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Should Federal Funding Follow Students from Public to Private Schools?

capitol buildingSenator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) believe that federal funds should follow low-income students from public school to their choice of private or parochial schools. They liken monies following K–12 students to Pell Grants for college students or the GI Bill for veterans. Senator Scott’s CHOICE Act (S. 265), if passed, would allow parents of students with disabilities to choose which school their child would attend and have it funded by federal dollars. Senator Scott withdrew his Amendment (Title 1, Amendment 1) during the ESEA markup allowing for school choice but will probably introduce it on the floor. Chairman Alexander is considering whether to reintroduce his Scholarships for Kids bill, which would allocate $24 billion in federal K–12 money to let states create $2,100 scholarships for 11 million low-income children to use at any public or private school of their choice.

Most likely, given the resistance by Democrats and the White House, any amendment to the Senate bill reauthorizing ESEA that allows federal funds to follow a student to private school will fail. However, school choice has powerful supporters, and we can expect many more proposals to support it at the federal level in the years to come.

Even if federal funds do follow students to private schools, the question of accountability has yet to be answered. Public school students, including those attending public charter schools, must take standardized tests; those tests hold schools and teachers funded by federal and state tax dollars accountable for student achievement and progress. Private and parochial school students are not subject to either federal or state tests. When I asked in a meeting at the Brookings Institution how legislators can hold these schools accountable for using federal dollars effectively, Chairman Alexander could not answer the question.

In its 2015 Education Policy Platform, NCTE affirmed its belief in equity in education:

“Equity is essential to meet America’s promise of equal opportunity for all citizens. Equity serves the common values of fairness, opportunity, and social good. . . . The federal government has a role to guarantee that all citizens are prepared to participate in a competitive knowledge economy and a strong democracy. . . . To ensure equity in our democracy [we must] provide for the successful participation of students with the greatest needs, ensuring that Title I funding focuses on districts with the greatest percentage of students who lack economic opportunities, including the delivery of wrap-around services (such as before and after school programs, nutrition and health programs, and so on).”

NCTE strongly believes that extending Title I funds to private schools will draw much-needed dollars away from school districts with high concentrations of poor students and defeat the purpose for which Title I was created: “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”