"Supplemental Services": Setting the Stage for School Choice

There is a little-known provision in the education bill Congress will soon pass that could have big effects at a school near you: "Supplemental Services." This limited, but significant, measure could actually pave the way for school choice that includes private schools.

The testing provisions included in the education bill will arm parents with information about the performance of their child's school and the education their child is receiving. But parents must be able to do something with that information. One escape valve offered in the bill is public school choice, which will allow children in dangerous or poorly performing schools to transfer to another public school. The other is supplemental services grants.

The supplemental services portion of the bill would give parents with children trapped in consistently failing schools the opportunity to secure grants to pay for after-school tutoring, summer school programs or other educational materials. These grants give low-income parents access to the same options that higher-income families use when their child's school does not educate and cannot improve.

The amount of the grants coming to an eligible child will be from $500 to $1,000 per child, and will continue until a child completes the highest grade offered at the public school deemed as failing. Parents may take their grant money to a supplementary education service provider of their choice that meets certain state-established criteria. Private religious providers would be among those eligible to provide services as long as they meet the state's requirements.

The grants will be funded with Title I funds (federal money earmarked for disadvantaged children), which would – for the first time – be allowed to flow to private tutors and other private education services providers, including faith-based organizations. This signals the federal government's belated recognition that private organizations – even religious ones – can be an active participant in the provision of public education.

The importance of this cannot be understated. If it is deemed appropriate that parents be allowed to take a portion of taxpayer-funded grants to private providers for educational services for their children, then we are only one step away from taxpayer-funded tuition grants that will make it possible for children to attend private schools.

Supplemental services grants may come sooner than you think. The education bill will provide immediate relief for children who are trapped in schools that are deemed as failing under the terms of the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. According to the officials negotiating the details of the bill, this could apply to students who currently attend more than 3,000 poor-performing schools across the country.

Both measures in the education bill – public school choice and supplemental services grants – are steps in the right direction. Both will provide options to parents who up to now have had none. But both measures are simply token efforts by the federal government to catch up with the school choice bandwagon begun and perfected at the state level.

When it comes to school choice, states are leading the way. State and local leaders have been advocating school choice initiatives for a long time. As a result, during the 1999-2000 school year, more than 500,000 students participated in public school choice programs, which include charter schools, magnet schools and open enrollment policies. And more than 60,000 participated in school voucher programs – almost 13,000 students in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida have left their assigned public school with taxpayer-funded scholarships.

In addition, some states offer tax credits as another means to offer school choice to parents. Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and most recently Pennsylvania, allow taxpayers a tax deduction or tax credit for donations to organizations that provide scholarships to students or for parents who spend personal funds on private school expenses.

The federal government's foray into school choice falls short of President Bush's original proposal that would have allowed children trapped in failing schools to receive the entire amount of their federal Title I as a scholarship to another school or for educational aids. But it is a start. Supplemental services grants demonstrate the benefits of giving private providers a role in the public school system. Most importantly, however, parents who have been unable to remove their children from failing schools will finally have some options.