Double Standard on School Choice

Double Standard on School Choice
August 1, 2000

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)



Do Members of Congress practice what they preach about school choice?

A new Heritage Foundation survey reveals that a substantial number of federal lawmakers who practice choice by sending their children to private schools consistently preach--and vote--against choice. Their votes have been critical to the continued blocking of parental choice legislation at the federal level.

Last year, for example, 57 members of Congress who exercise school choice for their own children were instrumental in voting down an amendment introduced by Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas) to give poor parents the same power to remove their children from dangerous schools. If the 57 lawmakers had voted for the amendment, it would have passed 223-200, instead of failing 166-257.

Similarly, in the Senate, a bill expanding education savings accounts to cover K-12 education expenses at public, private, or religious "schools of choice" failed to attract the supermajority needed to override President Clinton's likely veto. The amendment authorizing this baby step towards school choice would have passed easily if the senators who practice school choice had supported it.

The Heritage Foundation study reveals this kind of behavior is common among elected officials in the nation's capital. While surveys consistently show that the strongest support for choice comes from low-income parents who want to get their children out of failing public schools, many lawmakers with the financial means to exercise school choice themselves consistently vote to deny that choice to less-affluent parents.

"The hypocrisy doesn't end on Capitol Hill," note the study's authors. "Both Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore argue that vouchers would undermine the public schools. Yet both have sent their own children to elite Washington-area private schools."

The survey, reported in "How Members of Congress Practice School Choice," was conducted between February and May by Heritage Senior Policy Analyst Nina Shokraii Rees and researcher Jennifer Garrett. It reveals that 49 percent of the senators and 40 percent of the representatives responding to the survey have sent or are sending at least one child to private school. Lawmakers who serve on committees with jurisdiction over education are the ones most likely to send their children to private schools, Rees and Garrett found.

The survey also found that, for respondents with school-aged children:

  • 61 percent of Senate Finance Committee members and 57 percent of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee members send or have sent their children to private school.
  • 43 percent of House Ways and Means Committee members and 33 percent of House Education and Workforce Committee members chose private schools for their children.
  • 33 percent of members who represent the congressional districts of the 10 largest U.S. cities have chosen private schools.
  • 28 percent of Black Caucus members and 14 percent of Hispanic Caucus members send or have sent their children to private schools.

The Heritage Foundation has conducted this survey twice before, with different congresses, and has consistently found large numbers of members who send their children to private school while opposing school choice opportunities for the disadvantaged.

According to U.S. Department of Education figures, 5.9 million of the nation's 52.8 million students attend private schools, or 11.2 percent. However, U.S. Census data show that only 5.8 percent of black Americans enroll their children in private schools.



Same Story in California

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Los Angeles Times revealed that California state lawmakers were about three times more likely to practice school choice than the average family in that state. About one-third of the legislators with school-aged children had enrolled them in private schools, while only about 10 percent of California children overall attend private schools.

State Senator Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) sends his children to a private Christian school because he has no confidence in the public school system. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), who is married to a public school teacher, currently has his children in a public elementary school, but he and his wife are considering enrolling them in a private middle school.

"As a parent, no matter how passionate you are about public schools, in the final analysis you're going to do what's best for your children," Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times.



Most Big Apple Officials Choose Private Schools

In April, The Daily News ran a front-page story showing that most of the public officials who determine education policy in New York City send their children to private schools. For example, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy and most of the members of the city's Board of Education have selected private schools for their children. So have Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Public Advocate Marek Green, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a public figure if not a public official.

"Most of those leaders use their public authority to oppose vouchers for inner-city kids," New York University professor Joseph P. Viteritti told New York Times columnist John Tierney. "They say they're protecting a higher good called public education. But then why isn't that higher good good enough for their own children?"



Urban Teachers Favor Private Schools

In a 1995 analysis of U.S. Census data, education researcher Denis P. Doyle revealed that public school teachers in the 100 largest cities in the United States are generally more likely than the general public to enroll their children in private schools. In the 20 largest cites in the U.S., the percentage of public school teachers who send their children to private school is greater than the national average, and also greater than the percentage of all parents in the city who do so.

"If teachers and their organizations reject the institutions they are teaching in and feel free to choose a private alternative, on what basis should other parents, particularly the poor and dispossessed, be denied this option?" asked Doyle. "In no other area of the modern welfare state are the poor denied a service simply because they are poor."


George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News


For more information . . .

The Heritage Foundation study by Nina Shokraii Rees and Jennifer Garrett, "How Members of Congress Practice School Choice," can be found online at http://www.heritage.org/library/backgrounder/bg1377.html.

A September 1995 Hudson Institute Briefing Paper, “Where the Connoisseurs Send Their Children to School,” is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and request old document #2180408 (11 pp.)

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)