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Edu-Organizations to Congress: Keep Vouchers Out of ESEA Rewrite

Next week, the U.S. Senate is slated to start debating a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One of the big points of contention to watch? Expanding school choice.

And that prospect does not make a coalition of more than 50 organizations—ranging from AASA, the School Superintendents Association to the Texas Freedom Network very happy.

Those organizations sent a letter to lawmakers Tuesday reiterating their opposition to vouchers and Title I portability, which would allow federal money for disadvantaged children to follow students to any school they choose. (Some "portability" bills include private schools, others are just for public schools.)

Their argument: Vouchers discriminate against some students, since private schools don't have to accept everyone, and also would siphon off resources for public schools that do cater to all children. Plus, the groups say vouchers don't necessarily lead to increased student achievement. And they say portability is a stepping stone toward vouchers. (Many of these groups  have made this same argument before.)

Here's a snippet from the letter:

Instead of providing equal access to high quality education or setting high standards for accountability, voucher programs have proven ineffective, lack accountability to taxpayers, and deprive students of rights provided to public school students. The "choice" in voucher programs lies with the schools—not with students or parents. Private schools may turn students away for a variety of reasons, while public schools are open to all.

The list of organizations on the letter includes groups, like AASA and the American Federation of Teachers, that have been supportive of a bill to write the ESEA law crafted by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., which passed unanimously out of committee earlier this year.

Presumably, new voucher or portability language would cost the bill the bill some of its biggest cheerleaders, not to mention the votes of most Senate Democrats, and maybe even some Republicans.    

Still, the issue seems likely to come up in the debate. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., for instance, is expected to offer as an amendment his bill, which would encourage states to fund school choice programs for students in special education. And there could be an amendment allowing states to opt for Title I portability, maybe introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, or another conservative Republican.

For now, it seems likely that even GOP senators who would ideally like to see vouchers included in the legislation will vote against any attempt to add them anyway, just to keep the bill bipartisan.

But the issue could be a bigger deal in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers were miffed that they didn't get a chance to vote on portability when that chamber considered (but ultimately tabled, in the wake of conservative opposition) its ESEA rewrite.

The ESEA update isn't the only bill that where school choice is likely to come up. Congress could consider an expansion or revision of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—a big priority for Rep. John Boehner, the speaker of the House—later this year.

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