School choice will be part of the debate when the U.S. House of Representatives takes up its version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, possibly as early as this week. The House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who has become much more active on K-12 issues lately, has introduced an amendment that would allow Title I dollars to follow children to the public school of their choice, including charter schools.
The amendment would help "the most vulnerable kids, including foster children and those with disabilities. It is a public school choice amendment for children to have an experience like this," Cantor said at a press conference at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington. The school has the longest waiting list of any charter school in the district.
The ESEA bill, which was written by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education Committee garnered only GOP support in committee. Leaders are reaching out to members today to get a sense of how they are likely to vote. So far, it looks close, advocates say. And it's noteable that leaders haven't officially scheduled the bill for a floor vote.
But Cantor says he is confident the bill can pass. And he thinks his amendment—and even the underlying legislation could gain some Democratic support.
"I think we will have success in getting the [bill] across the floor because of the reform nature of this bill," he said. "I'm hopeful we can actually get bipartisan support on the bill itself because it is aimed at holding ourselves and our schools accountable" for every child's success, Cantor said. (Key Democrats, including Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have slammed the bill as a huge step backward when it comes to accountability, particularly for vulnerable children.)
Kline, meanwhile, noted that the bill eliminates seventy "soda straw programs" and reduces the federal footprint. More on the selling points for—and potential opposition from—conservatives here.
But back to school choice: Title I portability is a big watch word in GOP education circles these days. Gov. Mitt Romney made Title I and special education portability the center piece of his education platform back in the 2012 election. And Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, introduced a similar provision when that panel considered its own (Democrats only) ESEA renewal bill. (It failed in committee.)
A House Democratic aide criticized Cantor's amendment as difficult to implement, since the current Title I funding formula generally steers dollars to schools with high numbers of students in poverty, as opposed to being directed at individual students. And the aide noted that House Republican and Democratic language to reauthorize the charter school provisions of ESEA are virtually identical, since lawmakers worked together on a bipartisan bill a couple of years ago.
Folks had originally expected Cantor to introduce an amendment that would allow parents to take their Title I dollars to a private school, as well as a traditional public school or charter. But that idea met with big resistance from some moderate members of the House Republican caucus, advocates say. And two Republican lawmakers—Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah and Matt Salmon of Arizona—have introduced amendments that would allow students to bring their Title I dollars to private schools. Will Cantor's public school choice amendment be sufficient to help the bill garner support from conservatives? Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, public school districts are already nervous about the potential impact of the legislation on their bottom line. The bill would freeze in place the funding levels set by sequestration—a series of across-the-board cuts to nearly every federal program put in place to help trim the federal budget. Check out this press release from Miami-Dade County schools.