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GOP Lawmakers, Advocates Discuss School Choice at Washington Forum

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By Lauren Camera. Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog. 

As Congress gets to work on rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., hosted a school choice jamboree Monday, headlined by some big names in the Republican Party and attended by charter school and voucher-program advocates, teachers, principals, parents, and students from the Washington area.

Scott, who's intent on drafting the most-conservative version of the federal K-12 law possible (his words, not mine), said he'll be looking to add language to the bill that would allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow those students to the school of their choice, including private schools.

"I say let us not relegate that choice to the public school system," Scott said.

As it stands, the draft reauthorization introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in January includes a Title I portability provision that would allow parents to use federal dollars only for the public school of their choice, including public charter schools.

Alexander, who spoke during the day-long school choice love fest, said that he too would prefer a voucher system that would allow families to use federal funding for private schools but he didn't think the majority of Americans understand the policy well enough to embrace it.

"The more people get accustomed to the idea of choice among public schools," he said, "the more likely they are to feel that way for [using federal dollars] at any school."

Alexander also underscored to those in the audience his view that school choice policies, Title I portability in particular, shouldn't be thrust upon states by the federal government.

"I think it's really wise not to order people to do it, particularly from Washington, D.C.," said Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee and has held fast to his legislating philosophy of giving states as much control as possible while working to overhaul the NCLB law.

"When you're adopting a new idea, it doesn't work very well if someone makes you do it," he continued. "We found that out, for example, with Common Core [State Standards], didn't we? The governors were working together to try to raise standards and all of a sudden, wham-o!"

In addition, the chairman conceded that Republicans often get in their own way when trying to push school choice policies.

"The choice argument is often made by people who sound like they're talking academically," he said. "I don't think that's the most effective thing."

The argument on behalf of school choice should come from people who had experience with it in their lives, Alexander said, such as Scott, who often tells a story about his friend's struggle to find the right school for his son who has Down Syndrome.

Also speaking Monday was Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, who attended a charter school herself and whose 2nd-grade son also has Down Syndrome and attends a charter school.

Those experiences, she said, "only reinforced my belief in these choices."

McMorris Rodgers said that in updating the NCLB law, House Republicans will work to allow money to follow the students and expand charter schools—both provisions are already in a bill that the chamber's education committee plans to mark up Wednesday.

She noted that she's particularly interested in including language in the revised law that would promote blended learning, largely based on a bill she recently introduced along with Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

We need more "focus on individualized education so we know in real time how each student is doing day-by-day," she said.

The real star of the day, however, was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Republican presidential hopeful who is spending the early part of this week in the nation's capital.

The school choice champion had been expected to outline a series of education reforms he supported as part of his anticipated presidential run and to also rip on the common core, which his likely GOP primary challenger Jeb Bush supports.

Instead, he simply pushed school choice policies really, really hard. (I know, from a "hoping for fireworks" point of view we were sad as well.)  

Jindal noted that before Hurricane Katrina, more than 65 percent of students in New Orleans attended schools rated F, but that percent has since shrunk to just 4 percent. More than 90 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools in New Orleans.

"You can give A through F letters to rate schools, you can change your tenure policies, you can lift the charter school cap, you can allow charter operators to have more than one school operating at the same time and give them a longer approval process, shut down failing schools ...," Jindal said listing several policies he's pushed Louisiana to adopt. "But the most important thing, and it's not real complicated, is you let the dollars follow the child instead of the child follow the dollars."

He also pushed the lawmakers to think about not only allowing dollars to follow students, but also unpacking those dollars to make them divisible to a variety of education programs, such as online courses or certification classes offered by private employers.

His recommendations to Congress for overhauling the NCLB law were short:

"I hope they will block-grant a lot of the funding, and I hope they will reduce the role of the [U.S.] Department of Education," he said, adding that there are very few issues the department should handle, like civil rights or transparency. "Everything else should be done at the state and local level."

As for testing, one of the biggest debates spiraling out of the NCLB rewrite efforts in Congress, Jindal agreed that students take too many tests, but he didn't expand on whether he supported maintaining the current law's testing requirement. Instead, he said that students should take fewer tests and that tests they take should be benchmarked so that states have a whole slate of tests to choose from.

Related:

Four Things Sen. Alexander Says the Feds Can Do to Expand School Choice

How Language in NCLB Draft Bill Affects School Choice 

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