Chris Graham is correct that Donald Trump and his advisers provided precious few details as to how his proposed $20 billion federal block grant to states could result in actual school choice for needy children. A large dose of skepticism is in order. Many advocates of choice worry that any funding from Washington would come wrapped in ideological agendas that would diminish individual choice, not expand it.
Mr. Graham assumes that the federal money would go to vouchers to help families pay private-school tuition. That is a possibility; however, Trump said he would encourage states to use the money to enable families to select “public, private, or charter schools.” Thus, a state might want to put the aid (if it ever materializes) into education savings accounts from which parents could draw to purchase educational services for their children, such as online classes, tutoring, needed therapy, advanced courses at a public university, textbooks, curricula for home instruction, or, yes, tuition. This innovative approach, now adopted by five states and under consideration by several others, supports educational choice as opposed to school choice via vouchers.
If tuition vouchers of $12,000 will be in play, Mr. Graham might want to re-examine his argument that needy kids still would be left in the lurch because private-school tuitions are two to three times that amount. According to the latest National Center for Education Statistics data, average tuitions are $6,890 at Catholic schools, $8,690 at other religiously affiliated schools, and $21,510 at non-sectarian schools. It is worthy of note that nationally 80 percent of private-school students are enrolled in the religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court as well as many state judiciaries have upheld the constitutionality of parents using public vouchers to send their kids to schools with religious ties so long as the state programs aid a wide range of choices. Many parents say they like the emphasis on moral values and good character they find at such schools. They really aren’t looking for snobbish, hugely expensive private schools such as Washington political elitists (many of them stern foes of school choice for everyday folks) prefer for their own children.
Robert Holland is a Senior Fellow for Education Policy at The Heartland Institute.