Brookings Now

Sen. Lamar Alexander: Trust parents to choose best school for their children

Fred Dews

At an event today hosted by the Brown Center on Education Policy, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) posed a question he asked when he was U.S. secretary of education in 1992:

If we trust parents to choose child care for their children, and if we trust them to help their children choose a college to attend—and both those systems have been so successful and are so widely supported– then why do we not also trust parents to choose the best elementary and high school for their children?

Senator Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, delivered his remarks at the release of the Brown Center’s annual Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI) that chronicles how school choice is progressing in the nation’s largest school districts. Senior Fellow Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center, introduced this year’s ECCI and moderated a Q&A period with Sen. Alexander. Watch the entire event below:

In his remarks about the ECCI, Whitehurst summed up the findings, stating that the data:

Indicates that access to school choice, while certainly falling short of the universality that many advocates see as desirable, is substantial on average in large school districts, near universal in some districts, and on the rise overall. At the very least, school choice offers an otherwise missing relief valve for parents who are frustrated with their child’s school and at its best it provides a way of managing a system of schools based on market mechanisms that allows for innovation and dynamism at the school level and a much more even playing field for school access for lower income families.


But the devil is in the details for school choice just as it is for a district that doesn’t utilize choice and the details require attention to the parameters of choice and competition such as the ones we include in the Index as well as to the fundamentals of choice: access, and quality.  Choice is empty if there are no good schools available to which kids can transfer.

Sen. Alexander outlined four ways the federal government can “expand the opportunity that parents have to choose the most appropriate school for their children:”

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  • Scholarships for Kids: The senator explained a bill he introduced that would allow states to use $24 billion in current federal K-12 education funds to create scholarships for 11 million low-income children; and also allow states to use Title I money to follow low-income children to the school they attend.
  • The CHOICE Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) that would allow $11 billion spent by the federal government for children with disabilities to follow those 6 million children to the schools their parents choose.

“I think it’s important to underscore,” Sen. Alexander said, “that these bills do not require the states to do anything—instead they give states the option to do this and let the money follow the child.”

  • The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: An expansion under the CHOICE Act of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
  • Expanding charter schools through a number of mechanisms to update and streamline the existing Charter Schools Program. “Our goal,” Senator Alexander said, “is to grow the federal investment in expanding and replicating high-quality charter schools with a demonstrated record of success, and hold charter schools accountable for their performance.”

Access the ECCI here, and learn more about the event here.