Though most of the attention Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, has received since he delivered the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union speech has been about his bad timing when taking a drink of water, many of the ideas he presented should have piqued viewers’ interest.
This excerpt was music to my ears:
“We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice.”
Speeches such as the one Rubio gave are often full of hollow words – very rarely does any idea presented get introduced in Congress. Rubio, though, coupled words with action, introducing the Educational Opportunities Act last week.
The act creates federal corporate and individual tax credits that people can claim if they donate to Scholarship Granting Organizations, or SGOs. These SGOs use donated money to distribute scholarships to students in low-income families for private school tuition or expenses related to attending a private school.
This isn’t the first time Congress has seen a school choice program in its chambers. In fact, it passed the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Act in 2004. The program provided low-income Washington, D.C., students at failing schools with a scholarship worth up to $7,500 that could be used to cover the costs of tuition, school fees and transportation to a private school.
The results from the program have been impressive. In fact, a recent study of the program showed that it raised students’ likelihood of graduating high school by 12 percentage points. It also increased math and reading scores by 3.90 points and 0.70 points, respectively.
Many are saying that Rubio borrowed his idea from Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida who signed the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program into law in 1999. That program allowed students attending failing schools to use opportunity scholarships to transfer to a private school of their choice. It also had great results, even helping low-performing public schools to improve student math scores by 13 points – a significant amount.
A bill similar to Rubio’s is also being proposed in Illinois. Modeled after the Pennsylvania Opportunity Scholarship Corporate Tax Credit, it allows businesses across Illinois to claim deductions on money they donate to state SGOs. These donations will then be used to provide scholarships for low-income students attending failing schools to attend private schools instead.
It is unclear whether Rubio’s bill has any chance of becoming law. But if we had more creative politicians such as him sponsoring legislation that provides parents with a choice about where their child should attend school, it would push the debate further along.
And that is something we desperately need. Instead of talking about what small changes we should make to failing public school systems, we should instead be discussing how we should structure an education funding system that empowers parents and benefits students.
Josh Dwyer is Director of Education Reform at the Illinois Policy Institute