How Congress Should — and Shouldn’t — Bolster School Choice

This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “Expanding Education Opportunity through School Choice.” There are lots of great reasons to support school choice policies, but Congress should not create a national voucher program. It is very likely that a federal voucher program would lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. Once private schools become dependent on federal money, the vast majority is likely to accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding. When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

That said, there’s at least one area where Congress both has the authority to act and can do a lot of good: Washington, D.C. Despite spending close to $30,000 per pupil, D.C.’s public schools are ranked among the worst in the nation, and it’s the students from the poorest households who are assigned to the worst schools. In nearly all D.C. neighborhoods where the median three-bedroom home costs $460,000 or less, the percentage of students at the zoned public school scoring proficient or advanced in reading was less than 45 percent. Children from families that could only afford homes under $300,000 are almost entirely assigned to the worst-performing schools in the District, in which math and reading proficiency rates are in the teens. Ideally, Congress would enact a universal education savings account program, similar to the one that Sen. Ted Cruz is proposing.

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