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Key Republican Senators Introduce School Choice Bills

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, will put forth legislation tomorrow that would consolidate some 80 education programs into a giant funding stream, in order to create an optional school choice program for states.

The measure would combine almost every program authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including those tailored to educating low-income students (aka Title I), English-language learners, and homeless children, as well as funds to help states improve teacher quality, into a $24 billion, more-flexibile funding stream for states. (The one program that would continue to stand alone would be Impact Aid, which helps districts make up for tax revenue lost to a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation.)

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also has far-reaching school choice legislation.

Under Alexander's legislation, states could opt to allocate the newly-consolidated funds to low-income parents, giving them much more say over how their child's share of federal education dollars are spent. Parents could use the money to help pay for private school, supplement their public or public charter's school's budget, attend a public school outside their home district, or cover the cost of tutoring services or home schooling materials. Each child would get an average of $2,100 in annual federal aid, under the proposal.

States could also decide to kick in their own funding to bolster the scholarships. Or they could opt out of the program altogether and still receive the same amount of federal funding.

But states that chose to join in would get some relief from mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. They would still be responsible for testing students, and reporting data, but schools would no longer be required to meet certain goals for student achievement and wouldn't be subject to federal sanctions or interventions, according to an Alexander aide. If every state decided to jump on board, the program would serve 11 million children.

That sounds like even more leeway than states are currently getting from the Obama administration's ESEA waivers, which are in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia.

Does the idea sound familiar? It should. Lots of Republicans have been pushing lately for federal funding to follow children to the school of their choice. For instance, in 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney proposed a similar program. (Romney's, however, would have required that federal funds go for school choice. The Alexander bill makes it an option.)

And Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, added language to a bill revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would allow students to take federal Title I dollars to the public school of their choice. (The idea is often short-handed as "Title I portability.")

In fact, Alexander put forth his own bill to revise the ESEA law last year, and included Title I portability in it. The big difference between that bill and this one? This bill would allow families to take federal dollars to private schools—it was just public schools under Alexander's previous legislation.

So why include private schools now? In writing his ESEA bill, Alexander was trying to put something together that all Republicans on the Senate education committee could support and that could potentially garner broad support on the floor of the Senate, an Alexander aide said.

The program consolidation idea isn't brand new either. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the head of the House education committee, included somewhat similar language in a bill to reauthorize the ESEA law—and got major, vehement pushback from civil rights groups.

Alexander isn't the only Senate lawmaker to introduce a major school choice bill in recent days.  Earlier this month, Scott released the CHOICE Act, which stands for the Creating Hope and Opportunities for Individuals and Communities Through Education Act. The bill would allow special education dollars to follow children to the school of their choice.

And Scott's bill would create a five-year, $10 million pilot program to offer military families scholarships of up to $12,000 for use at public or private schools. (The cost of the program would be offset by a decrease in the U.S. Department of Education's salaries and expenses account.) Scott is also seeking to boost the number of students receiving aid under the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a federally-funded voucher program for low-income students in Washington.

Both Alexander and Scott will be on hand at the American Enterprise Institute Tuesday to talk about their bills.  

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