Rubio will need Florida-style bipartisan backing for choice plan

Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio released an ambitious federal school-choice plan on Tuesday night.
Photo from Speaker Boehner's Flickr account.

The nation was perhaps too preoccupied with Marco Rubio’s gulp heard ‘round the world to notice that the senator, immediately after his Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday, released a far-reaching federal school-choice plan. And that’s too bad, for what has emerged this week is the most sweeping congressional idea to empower disadvantaged kids with private school alternatives since the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Just as many states now make available tax credit scholarships—cousins to school vouchers—Rubio would empower individuals or corporations to contribute money to nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” in return for a tax credit—anywhere in the nation.  Those scholarship groups would, in turn, help low-income kids cover the tuition at a private school of their choice.

This is an ambitious plan, but one that would surely face resistance in a Democratically controlled senate that has repeatedly dogged the D.C. voucher program. And while that would not be surprising, it would surely be disappointing, for it would further widen the gulf between the national Democratic Party and a growing number of state Democrats on this issue.

A lot of those state Democrats are in Florida, where Rubio served as House Speaker from 2007 to 2009 and where he helped to lead a greater bipartisan effort to expand and enhance the state’s own tax credit scholarship program. The Florida program was launched in 2001 with the support of just one Democrat, but by the time Rubio left office, the program had the support of nearly half of the legislative Democrats—including all but one member of the Hispanic caucus.

Many Florida Democrats came to this support upon seeing evidence that the program mostly served children of color from impoverished households and among the poorest performers among their school peers. And a lot of those children happened to reside in their own legislative districts. For his effort to succeed, Rubio will have to convince his senate Democratic colleagues that he plans to serve children no less disadvantaged.

Rubio’s plan would serve less fortunate children, and the public can see how the program is performing.

His proposal is less restrictive than Florida’s: Households would qualify for the scholarship so long as their income doesn’t exceed 250 percent of the poverty level; in Florida, the eligibility ceiling is 185 percent of poverty, the line that marks the maximum amount for a free or reduced price lunch. Still, this is not a measure for wealthier families; many parents in this income bracket can’t easily afford a private school on their own, and many more can’t fund a private education at all.

And Rubio’s bill also would add a regulatory burden on participating scholarship-granting organizations that’ has not been seen in most state programs of its kind. The bill allows the scholarship organizations to determine the actual award—a practice different from most states—but these organizations will have to submit independent audits annually and they’ll have to make sure their scholarship recipients are assessed academically.

In other words, Rubio’s plan would serve less fortunate children, and the public can see—at least in the aggregate—how the program is performing. That’s similar to the way the Florida tax credit works (a program the Fordham Institute reported had the highest regulatory burden of any tax credit scholarship nationwide). That should be enough to sway more centrist-minded Democrats, but one shouldn’t be naïve. Congressional Democrats have shown little love for private school choice. Senator Rubio must point to other states and show his colleagues how out of step they are.

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