Sens. Cruz and Lee: Expand School Choice For Low-Income Parents

By Gabrielle Cintorino | May 27, 2015 | 3:30 PM EDT

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). (AP photo)

( -- As Congress considers reauthorization of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), U.S. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) want to expand school choice by allowing low-income parents the opportunity to send their children to any public or private school of their choice.

Their bill, entitled the Enhancing Educational Opportunities for All Students Act (S.306), which was introduced in the Senate on January 29, calls for a three-fold reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which was passed in 1965 and reauthorized as NCLB in 2002.

“All students should have access to a high quality education. This legislation will empower parents to invest more in their child's education and allow parents to choose what school best meets their child's needs,” Lee stated.

Sen. Cruz concurred. “The rich and middle class have had school choice from the beginning of time,” he said. “This fight is about ensuring that every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, or zip code has the same opportunity to choose the school that best fits their needs and will help them achieve their very best.”

According to Senator Lee’s website, the first provision of the bill would allow federal Title I funds to follow low-income students to any public or private school of their choice. In 2015, the federal poverty guideline is $20,090 for a family of three.

The second provision of the bill would remove contribution limitations on Coverdell Education Savings Accounts - the lone tax break available to parents to cover educational expenses for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. 

Section 201 also calls for a recognition of home school expenses as qualified educational expenses, and redefines a private school to include a home school.

The third provision of the bill expands tax-exempt “529” accounts, which allow parents to save for future educational expenses, to pre-K-12 education.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). (AP photo)

A companion bill (H.R. 5477) was introduced by Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) in the House. “Our current education system works for many. But it is failing too many others,” Messer said on the House floor in September. “Some may say our current system is the best we can do, but deep down we all know we must do better.”

Fifty years ago, ESEA was enacted by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, who said that “our first national goal” should be “full educational opportunity” for all students.

But that goal has not been reached, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “the nation’s report card,” which measures three levels of academic achievement: basic, proficient and advanced.

“In 2014, 18 percent of students performed at or above Proficient in U.S. history, 27 percent performed at or above Proficient in geography, and 23 percent in civics,” according to Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Scores from the 2013 NAEP showed similar results in reading and math. Only 26 percent of the nation’s students tested at the proficient level or higher in math, while less than half (38 percent) were considered proficient in reading.

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