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School Choice Plan Subject of Hearing

The President’s proposal to allow students attending poorly performing public schools transfer to other schools was the subject of a March 14 hearing held by the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Education Reform.

Subcommittee Chair Mike Castle (R-DE) said the President’s education reform plan will be central to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Last reauthorized in 1994, the ESEA represents the federal government’s contribution to public education for grades K-12. During the 106th Congress, both chambers were unsuccessful in their efforts to pass reauthorizing legislation (see The Source, 5/12/00, p. 2).

While most public education funds are supplied by state and local taxes, federal funds authorized under the ESEA cover about 7 percent of public education costs. The largest portion of ESEA funds are made under the bill’s Title I, which targets schools with large numbers of disadvantaged and low-income students. Referring to the President’s education reform plan, Rep. Castle said it “provides students in failing Title I schools with the option to transfer to a higher-performing public or private school.”

The President has called for annual assessment tests for public school students in grades three through eight. Students attending Title I schools with test results that do not meet certain standards for three consecutive years would be allowed to change schools. For Title I schools falling below the standards, federal funds would be supplied to spur improvement. However, a state government would be called upon to intervene if a school continually failed to meet standards.

It is estimated that the annual per-student expenditure for Title I students is $1,500. The President’s plan would allow that amount of public funding to “travel” with a student who changes schools under the school choice plan. The money could be transferred to an alternate public school or be used to pay tuition at a private institution.

Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, an organization that has provided legal defense in cases challenging the constitutionality of school choice programs across the country, told the subcommittee: “Initially, I supported school choice as a life preserver for economically disadvantaged children seeking to escape failing or dangerous public schools. After a decade of experience with these programs, I now support school choice as a necessary component of fostering long-overdue reform and improvement in public schools.”

The rest of the hearing’s witnesses also described school choice as a catalyst for improvement in public education. Dr. Spence Korte, superintendent of schools in Milwaukee, described the choice initiative in his district, saying that state funding provided for each school is based on enrollment. In order to maintain funding, a school must meet testing standards and fulfill parents’ expectations. “If parents are not satisfied with the quality of the educational program being provided and the level of progress their children are achieving, they can—and do—choose to send their children to another school.”

Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona’s schools superintendent, said her state’s school choice plan, like Milwaukee’s program, is based on regular assessment testing for students. “Tests can help us determine where we are as teachers, students, policymakers, and a nation,” she said, adding: “You cannot hold states accountable unless you have a valid mechanism for measuring success.”

Representing the American Association of School Administrators, Michael Flanagan of the Michigan school system stated that school choice can encourage positive changes in public education. However, Mr. Flanagan expressed concern about some aspects of the President’s plan, saying that his organization “is absolutely opposed to any form of public money going to private schools under any name such as vouchers, certificates, scholarships, and portable entitlements.” He added that his organization “does not support the assertion that Title I funds are an individual entitlement and thus ‘portable’ to any one child.”

Mr. Flanagan described the President’s plan for annual assessment testing as “ambitious,” adding that his group wants “assurance that this will not be a new unfunded mandate,” with states forced to pay for tests required by the federal government. He also expressed concern about setting standards for each school’s test results. “The definition of low-performing must include the assumption that not all children are ‘failing’ in low-performing schools, and not all children are learning in successful schools,” he said.

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