3 Observations On Senator Lamar Alexander and School Choice

Three observations on Senator Lamar Alexander and school choice:

1. Although Senator Alexander supports school choice, his proposal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind isn’t really a school choice bill. In the past Alexander, has personally sponsored a private school voucher bill, and at the Brookings Institution yesterday he outlined four things he thinks the federal government could do to boost school choice–vouchers, vouchers for students with disabilities, vouchers for District of Columbia students, and expanding the federal charter school program. Of those four things, only one, charter schools, made it into Alexander’s draft proposal for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind.

Maybe this is the Senator playing politics–he clearly still supports vouchers–but his NCLB reauthorization proposal is actually worse on public school choice than current law. Under current law, low-performing public schools must allow students the option to transfer to another school in their district. Alexander’s draft would make this provision optional, closing the only existing federal rule that ensures families have a choice of school for their children.

2. The portion of his bill that’s purportedly about school choice is really about school funding policy. For 50 years, federal dollars for education have been targeted toward schools and districts with the highest concentrations of poverty. Alexander’s bill would radically re-envision this long-standing agreement. It would allow so-called Title I funding “portability,” where dollars followed low-income students to whichever public school they attended, regardless of how many other low-income students attended the same school.

This plan would be limited to public schools and, importantly, Alexander’s bill uses the verb “may,” meaning states would have complete discretion whether they wanted to do this or not. Assuming states did take it up, the Center for American Progress calculated that it could potentially shift large amounts of money from high-poverty schools to more affluent ones. Urban districts like Chicago and Los Angeles could lose millions of dollars, while richer areas like Naperville, IL and Beverly Hills, CA would gain. While funding “portability” might sound like a good thing in theory, concentrated poverty merits concentrated policy efforts.

But that’s assuming Alexander’s vision actually works. We’re talking about a very small amount of money per student, about $290. Would $290 per student be enough for a suburban school district to open up their schools to recruit and enroll additional low-income students? I doubt it.

3. Maybe other school choice supporters count portability as a sufficient “win,” but my biggest problem with the Alexander approach is that it simply doesn’t do enough to support a well-functioning school choice market. Funding is a necessary element of that market, but Alexander would take away the only requirement that districts offer a way for students to escape low-performing schools; he considers it “federal overreach” to ensure states provide families with comparable, usable information; and he doesn’t do enough to build an adequate supply of high-quality schools. Alexander’s bill would not even dramatically expand the federal charter schools program–it would provide $300 million, a $50 million bump over current funding, which may sound like a nice boost, but is actually $75 million less than President Obama just proposed in his budget.

In other words, Alexander stops far short of putting “the charter school engine on overdrive,” as Mike Petrilli proposed last week. That would require significant new funding for growing the charter sector from its current 5 percent market share, not to mention significant investments in things that the charter sector needs to operate a well-functioning market, such as facilities, transportation, choice matching systems, etc. Just as importantly, the federal government could support a well-functioning school choice market by ensuring that all families can access comparable information on school quality. Alexander’s bill does none of those things. It’s not just weak on accountability and weak on transparency. It’s also weak on public school choice.