What to Expect from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s Federal Voucher Legislation

What does Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) introduction today of the “Scholarships for Kids Act of 2014” federal voucher legislation mean for the future of school choice?

Allowing public education dollars to “follow” students makes sense at any level of government, from school boards all the way up to the federal government. Sen. Alexander’s proposal certainly is a smarter, more innovative way for the federal government to allocate dollars back to states.

In 2011, the Friedman Foundation proposed a similar student-based funding model as a better way to distribute the more than $4 billion in Race to the Top (RTTT) funds. We estimated that $4 billion repurposed into $2,000-$2,250 vouchers could fund between 420,000 and 630,000 students over a three- to four-year period. With Sen. Alexander’s proposal comprising $24 billion, its impact on enrollment would be amplified to include millions of students.

Will Sen. Alexander’s proposal get private school support?

In that same 2011 report, author Brian Gottlob estimated how private schools would respond to such a proposal from the federal government. In analyzing private school capacity, Gottlob wrote:

“[A] program that provided scholarships between $2,000 and $2,250 would require an expansion of private school capacity of between 8 percent and 12 percent, depending on the number of years over which federal funds of scholarships are spread. Again, individual states will vary, and some may be challenged by the required expansion.”

Keep in mind, Gottlob’s estimates were based on a $4 billion pot of funding. Of course, even with Sen. Alexander’s $24 billion, there’s no guarantee all private schools would participate. Some private schools may not participate because of concerns about regulatory creep down the road. The key will be to balance the need for greater autonomy in all schools, including public ones, with the need to ensure that private schools are free from any potentially burdensome regulations that might hinder their participation.

Does the “Scholarships for Kids Act of 2014” have any chance at passing?

Given the makeup of the Senate, Sen. Alexander’s proposal faces an uphill climb. However, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) showed, both parties can come together on school choice.

Importantly, any federal action on school choice should be done in an effort to reduce or streamline the federal government’s role in education, not increase it. Let’s not forget the tremendous gains states have made over the past decade in driving education reform. Since 2003, 36 private school choice programs have been created across the country, and it is exciting that Sen. Alexander’s proposal could add to that success.

Of course, the real question is what is the likelihood of President Obama signing the bill should the Senate and House adopt the proposal? Given the president’s opposition to the D.C. voucher program and his Department of Justice’s treatment of the Louisiana Scholarship Program, the prospects seem slim, which would be unfortunate for the millions of children that could benefit from the program.

At the very least, this news should prompt all lawmakers, state and federal, to move toward student-based funding models, portable to public and private schools, chosen and held accountable by parents.