SOURCE: NextStudent

March 20, 2008 09:10 ET

President's Proposal: Using College Model to Finance Private K-12 Education

PHOENIX, AZ--(Marketwire - March 20, 2008) - As part of his administration's ongoing education initiative, President Bush has proposed a $300 million grant program intended to increase K-12 education funding and enable more low-income parents to send their children to private or faith-based schools. This proposed Pell Grants for Kids program would be modeled after the federal postsecondary Pell Grant program that currently provides funds for low-income college students.

President Bush called for congressional support of the Pell Grant for Kids initiative in his final State of the Union address at the end of January, and the directive immediately sparked debate about the viability of Mr. Bush's continuing efforts to privatize public education and whether the program's funding would be substantial enough for participating low-income parents to avoid taking on debt from private student loans or other financial aid sources resembling college loans.

Under the Pell Grants for Kids program, the Department of Education would make competitive awards to states, cities, local educational agencies, and nonprofit organizations to develop K-12 scholarship programs for eligible low-income students attending schools that have not made "adequate yearly progress" under No Child Left Behind for five years, or that have a graduation rate of less than 60 percent.

"Like the Federal Pell Grant program, which students can use to attend the public or private college of their choice, Pell Grants for Kids would offer scholarships to low-income children in underperforming elementary and secondary schools, including high schools with significant dropout rates. These scholarships would help with the costs of attending an out-of-district public school or nearby private or faith-based school," writes Rick Garnett of the Catholic blog Mirror of Justice.

Additionally, Pell Grants for Kids would supplement financial aid already available to local education agencies through Title I Grants, with the purpose of offering, according to Garnett, "the same choice, flexibility, and support now available to students seeking a quality college education... to low-income families with children in chronically low-performing schools."

The administration seems to be seeking to closely identify the Pell Grants for Kids initiative with the existing college Pell Grant program, not only giving it the same name, but suggesting that, like college, K-12 education is best served when it's based on choice.

But while the college-level Pell Grant program has drawn wide bipartisan support, Democrats have been more critical of the Pell Grants for Kids plan, regarding it as an effort to expand school vouchers -- cloaked under the name of "grants" -- which they view as draining money from public schools.

"The president didn't commit the resources to expand educational opportunity," said Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Health, Education, and Labor Committee. "Instead, on top of the $70 billion shortfall in funding for his own education reforms, he again proposed to siphon scarce resources from our public schools to create new voucher programs."

In his support for the initiative, Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., doesn't back away from the characterization of Pell Grants for Kids as a voucher program. Citing the G.I. Bill, daycare certificates, college Pell Grants, and federal student loans as other voucher programs that have been "enormously successful," Sen. Alexander asserts in his Pell Grants for Kids Q&A that there is "every reason to believe the Pell Grants for Kids would be too."

Sen. Alexander's belief in the future success of Pell Grants for Kids is attributable in part to the one key area in which he differs with President Bush: the total cost of the program, which Sen. Alexander estimates at $15 billion a year -- 50 times higher than the president's estimate of $300 million. Sen. Alexander's $15 billion would provide a $500 scholarship to each of the country's 30 million low- and middle-income K-12 students. The president's $300 million, on the other hand, would be able to give the 15 million low-income K-12 students across the United States a total of $20 each.

Clearly, whether the program were to carry Sen. Alexander's $15 billion budget or the president's $300 million allocation, lower- and middle-class families who want to send their child to a private school won't be able to cover the full cost of tuition solely with the $500 or $20 in annual aid they would receive from Pell Grants for Kids. In the same way that the low-income college students who qualify for postsecondary Pell Grants must often supplement their grant with work-study and federal student loans, the low- and middle-income families who can't meet most of the cost of private K-12 tuition would need other financial aid options in addition to a Pell Grant.

Parents of elementary and high school students in private programs can apply for credit-based K-12 private student loans similar to the private student loans available to undergraduate and graduate students. However, college and graduate students are encouraged to seek out federal college loans and graduate student loans before turning to private student loans, which are typically not as low-cost as federal college loans. There are currently no such federal K-12 student loans available as a low-cost alternative to private K-12 loans for parents who would need to supplement the money they would receive through the Pell Grants for Kids program.

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