On July 15, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families heard testimony on a proposal to provide Pell grants for primary and secondary education students.
Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) summarized his initiative, the Pell Grant for Kids program, which would provide $500 for every low- and middle-income child to be used for any primary or secondary education program of the parent’s choice. Likening the proposal to Pell grants for college students, he explained that parents would decide how the money would be spent, and in this way, schools would no longer be “smothered” by federal rules and regulations. Sen. Alexander announced his intention to gather information on the proposal for the next six months, then introduce legislation in the 109th Congress. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) said the essence of the Alexander proposal “is a federal voucher program.” Calling the analogy to Pell grants for college students “appealing on the surface,” he explained that the major difference between institutions of higher learning and primary and secondary schools is that a student attends a particular school based on where he or she lives. Sen. Reed also expressed his concern that private schools are not subjected to the same federal regulations and requirements as public schools.
Michael Bell, assistant superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Miami, Florida, explained that the Pell Grant for Kids program would assist the 60 percent of children whose family incomes are below the state median income in Florida. “The disparity between the academic performance of this group, primarily minority children, and their wealthier peers is gradually increasing,” he stated, adding, “Robert F. Ferguson, writing in the May 2004 Phi Delta Kappa warns that achievement disparities among today’s students foreshadow socioeconomic disparities among tomorrow’s families and may lay the foundation for a politically dangerous future of our society.” Explaining that the Alexander proposal would build on the “significantly successful” Pell grants for college students, Mr. Bell stated, “Empowering middle- and low-income children to emulate wealthier families in enrolling in institutions of their choice stimulates not only the students but prompts the schools to be more effective as a consequence of the competition for increasing funding due to Pell Grant enrollment.” He pointed out that the Pell Grant for Kids program could be used to pay for private tutoring, school uniforms, fees for after-school programs, and musical instruments all of which “are inherent in the success of the more affluent students and add to the disadvantage of the struggling child.”
District of Columbia PTA President Darlene Allen explained that the Pell grant for college students “was designed to increase enrollment of low-income students by providing them with the financial means to achieve their dreams of postsecondary education,” adding, “Senator Alexander’s initiative, however, is not needed to increase public elementary and secondary school enrollment. Unlike higher education, elementary and secondary education in this country is both compulsory and free. No incentives are needed to encourage enrollment. As such, Senator Alexander’s initiative is simply a voucher program.” Ms. Allen noted that recipients of higher education Pell grants are held to “rigorous” eligibility requirements, but that the private primary and secondary schools funded under the Pell Grants for Kids program would not be held to the same standards as public schools. She also pointed out that federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender, race, and disability would be unenforceable: “Under this proposal, there are no clear mechanisms for the federal government to monitor the civil rights compliance of entities receiving funds under this program, and it will be impossible for the federal government to determine whether private schools and institutions receiving these federal funds are avoiding compliance with federal civil rights laws and engaging in discriminatory polices or practices.”
Ellen Goldring, a professor of education policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University, said that the Pell Grant for Kids program “would most likely be used by public school parents to purchase educational services both in and out of school, rather than as a voucher for parents to choose a private school, unless the parents were already at a private school. [The] Pell Grant for Kids is too small to be considered an avenue for widespread school choice. Five hundred dollars can be helpful as a grant to buy needed educational services, but it is too small an amount to help a low-income child attend a private school, unless it is an inexpensive parochial school.” She noted that the Pell Grant for Kids program would assist those families with few choices regarding educational services and programs. “Disadvantaged families and children do not usually have a wide array of educational choices they tend to attend schools with high concentrations of poverty,” she stated, adding, “Research evidence that spans several decades shows a persistent relationship between the percent of at-risk students in a school and the financial resources allocated to it in terms of class size, age and condition of facilities, teacher-student ratios, teacher quality, and per-pupil expenditures. Researchers and commentators on public education have argued that the socioeconomic isolation of poor, minority students in schools is a prime cause of the continuing achievement gap.”
Ms. Goldring told the subcommittee that the greatest challenge to implementing a successful Pell Grants for Kids program would be disseminating information on the program to the families who need it the most. “As a result of the relationship between social-class structure (i.e., education, occupation, income, housing) and social networks, the pool of resources from which lower-income parents can draw to make decisions regarding Pell Grants for Kids may be somewhat smaller than the one available to middle and upper class parents. This is especially true for parents who are not employed, did not finish high school or never attended college.”
Arlington County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Smith said that public school districts receiving funds under the Pell Grants for Kids program would suffer from the instability of funding from year to year. Explaining that there would be no guarantee that the same number of parents would use their grant in public schools each year, he stated, “If parents determine where to spend their dollars at the beginning of June and school districts will not get the dollars until August, local budgeting would be uncertain at best. The budget for Arlington Public Schools is adopted in the spring of the preceding year. In addition, it would be difficult to hire teachers and get new student programming into place all in time for the start of the school year. Adding an unknown number of dollars late in the summer would prevent any careful planning as to how to expend the new dollars.” He argued that instead of authorizing $15 billion for the Pell Grants for Kids program, Congress should fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act (P.L. 107-110).