Marco Rubio pitches federal school choice program

Sen. Rubio
Sen. Rubio

America’s long-running, state-by-state battle over parental empowerment in education may be going national.

In what could be the most far-reaching school choice legislation in U.S. history, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is proposing that low-income parents anywhere in the country be able to choose private schools through a federal initiative similar to the tax credit scholarship program in Florida.

“It’s not about unions. It’s not about school administrators,” Rubio told the Miami Herald for a story published Tuesday night – just after he delivered the Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address. “This is about parents. The only parents in America who don’t have a choice where their kids go to school are poor parents.”

Rubio is certain to face headwinds in a Democratically-controlled Senate, but the bill he plans to file would give low-income families options in states that have yet to offer them private school alternatives. The fight in many states has pitted teachers unions and school districts against low-income parents who might benefit. And though state constitutions sometimes speak to the use of vouchers, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in two separate landmark opinions (here and here) that such programs are constitutional.

Politically, the bill gives Rubio – a potential Republican contender for president in 2016 – a vehicle to barrel into a Democratic vacuum over parental school choice, and to make inroads with black and Hispanic families who increasingly demand such options.

His proposal isn’t a complete surprise.

The Herald notes he called for it during his Senate campaign in 2010. He suggested it again in a December speech at the Jack Kemp Foundation. And as House Speaker in Florida, he helped pave the way for a major expansion of the country’s biggest such program.

The Florida program is funded by corporations that receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return for contributions. It serves more than 50,000 students – 68 percent of whom are black or Hispanic – and has won backing from a solidly bipartisan legislative coalition, including a majority of the Legislative Black Caucus. (It’salso administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog).

The federal school choice proposal has already garnered the support of three progressive-minded parental choice groups – the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Hispanic Coalition for Reform and Educational Options, and Agudath Israel, a Jewish advocacy organization.

Under Rubio’s bill, both individuals and corporations could donate money to “scholarship granting organizations” in return for tax credits. Individuals could give up to $4,500 a year; corporations, up to $100,000. The bill does not include a cap on the total that could be collected.

The SGO’s, in turn, would award scholarships to students whose household incomes do not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would equate to $58,875 this year.

Presumably, individual SGOs would determine scholarship amounts. In Florida, the value of a tax credit scholarship is pegged by state law to a percentage of per-pupil funding for public schools. This year, it’s valued at $4,335.

The bill would impose a number of reporting requirements on participating schools. Scholarship students must take nationally norm-referenced tests, and schools must issue academic reports to their parents, including a comparison in the aggregate to other scholarship students at the school. The schools must also report test scores to the SGOs – again, in the aggregate – with results broken down by race or ethnicity.

The bill requires the director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education to conduct an annual evaluation. Among the indicators to be scrutinized: school retention rates, high school graduation rates and college admission rates. The director’s report would be submitted each year to Congress.

Rubio’s proposal isn’t the first publicly funded, private school choice measure floated at the federal level. But it stands out in potential scale.

Since 2004, a limited number of low-income students in Washington D.C. have been granted federally funded scholarships. President George W. Bush signed the program into law. President Obama opposes it.

Rubio’s idea has perhaps more in common with a Democratic plan from the 1970s.

The late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan crafted a measure with Republican Sen. Bob Packwood that would have awarded $500 in tax credits to families paying private or parochial school tuition. It racked up 50 co-sponsors, including liberal icon George McGovern and 23 other Democrats, but ultimately did not pass.

Update: Bill link here. Press release here.