In his state of the union address last night, President Bush touted “Pell Grants for Kids,” (PGFK) a $300 million federal voucher program. Pell grants are a popular program that provides needs-based post secondary tuition assistance. The program, like most things involving education, has been underfunded during the Bush presidency. Of course PGFK also tries to do things on the cheap, promising only $500 per student in aid, hardly enough to make a difference for most of the low income families who would be eligible. As policy PGFK is ridiculous; as symbolism it is important. The hook is that like pell grants, the “new” program could be used at private and religious institutions. In 1,000 ways higher education and k-12 education developed differently in this country — for example there are no compulsory higher education laws — and using tax dollars to fund private and religious education for children is not the same as helping adults afford to attend the college of their choice.
Of course unlike PGFK, pell grants can also be used at public institutions. Wouldn’t it be great if Bush had proposed giving every school district $500 more per student in federal aid. Although this probably still wouldn’t take care of all the underfunded federal mandates, it would mean about $12 million a year more for MMSD. Don’t hold your breath.
I put “new” in quotation marks above because this is an old idea all around. It was introduced as “The GI Bill for kids” By Lamar Alexander, when he was Secretary of Education under Bush I. Again, the attempt to create confusion by naming a voucher program after a popular program for adults. This went nowhere and it was reborn as PGFK in 2004, with a push from (then and now) Senator Lamar Alexander. The Senate testimony of (then) Arlington, VA Superintendent Robert Smith from 2004 gives a nice summary of how wrongheaded the proposal was and is. Andrew Rotherman of EdSector/Edwonk noted at the time that this was all about scoring a “political point” for school choice (note: I agree with Rotherman that this was and is about politics; I don’t agree with much else he has to say about it).
The title of this post is a trick question, the correct answer is both. Invoking pell grants covers the wolf of vouchers in the sheep’s clothing. Voucher proponents like Bush and Alexander hope to smuggle a small part of their policies into law under disguise thereby scoring points with people like the Hoover Institution, opening the door to more privatization and further undermining support for public education (and less support means more underfunding, which in turn leads to less support…starve the beast).
Don’t let it happen.
Thomas J. Mertz
The New York Times, Grants Would Finance Private Schooling
Educational Whisper, Pell Grants For Kids = Vouchers In Disquise
Think Progress, SOTU: Bush’s ‘Pell Grants for Kids’ Plan Is Vouchers In Disguise
Engaged Intellectuals, Pell Grants for Kids?!
Carpetbagger Report, ‘Pell Grants for Kids’ = Vouchers