The Incredible Shrinking GI Bill for Kids

They say in education there are not many good new ideas but the bad ones keep coming back again and again. Though not a pessimist, today Eduwonk is inclined to believe that. At a Capitol Hill event today Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will roll out his latest GI Bill for Kids proposal, a $500 grant to every middle and lower-class school child now called “Pell Grants for Kids”. You can read more about the proposal in this Education Next article.

Alexander deserves credit for style. He’s announcing the plan at a forum sponsored by the New America Foundation where critics can question him. Too often both sides in the school voucher debate release studies and new proposals in comfortable surroundings confronted only by the adoring gaze of supporters. But a willingness to debate a bad idea does not make it any better.

Alexander first proposed the GI Bill for Kids in 1992 when he was U.S. Secretary of Education and continued to pitch it during the 1990s. It was worth $1,000 back then. That’s only about $850 in today’s dollars, so today’s $500 bid is further retrenchment. If there is any good reason to pass this proposal now, it is simply to do so while there is something left.

Like a worn through flannel shirt the times, however, have passed Alexander by. No Child Left Behind includes a substantial provision providing parents with grants for supplemental educational services (tutoring) if their child is in a persistently low-performing school. Eduwonk is somewhat skeptical of the mechanics of this policy in practice, but it is a de facto Pell Grant for Kids now.

Moreover, $500 isn’t much. Alexander himself acknowledges as much. In Education Next he writes that,

But private school tuition costs far more than $500. Correct. So those who worry that vouchers will hurt public schools should relax. But six hundred parents armed with $500 each can exercise $300,000 in consumer power at a public middle school. Five hundred dollars can also help pay for language lessons or remedial help. At Puente Learning Center in South Los Angeles, Sister Jennie Lechtenberg teaches students of all ages English and clerical skills at an average cost to the center of $500 per year.

The $300K example, while compelling, ignores problems of collective action. Besides, Puente Learning Center sounds like the sort of supplemental services provider No Child’s architects had in mind. And in any event Eduwonk would like to see parents be able to use their child’s full per-pupil expenditure, not some token amount, at the public school or charter school of their choice.

If Alexander is seeking to tickle a consumer culture among parents he’s too late there too. The wealth of data that No Child is creating is empowering parents to become more sophisticated advocates on behalf of their children and their schools. Below the radar screen of the Washington debate, that’s happening now.

Sadly, the only thing weaker than the arguments for this proposal will likely be the ritualistic arguments against it. Pell Grants for Kids will not “drain money from public schools”, “undermine” them, or frankly in any other way substantially affect education. And that is precisely the problem: This idea does nothing except make a very expensive political point.

Eduwonk is all for helping parents. Why instead not propose giving every low and middle income parent a $500 (or for the sake of nostalgia $1,000) refundable increase in the child tax credit? Then parents can do with that money what they choose…what a downright Republican idea! Or, Alexander could focus his energies on improving No Child’s supplemental services provisions.

Why is Alexander not focusing his energy and substantial expertise on these issues? The answer is obvious. While expanding the child tax credit or improving supplemental services could have much the same effect as the GI Bill for Kids cum Pell Grant for Kids if parents chose, those policies would not make a political point about school choice. That political point is, of course, the underlying purpose of this whole exercise.

Alexander’s proposal is not harmful it is, well, pretty meaningless. It is a $2.5 billion a year political gimmick. It should be treated as such, meaning not seriously.

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