Surrounded by school children in a major White House event on June 25, 1992, President George Bush launched the “GI Bill for Children.” This $500 million proposal seeks to empower parents in middle- and low-income families with the opportunity to choose where their children will attend school. The President called it “another giant step forward in the revolution [of education reform]” and asked Congress to “authorize an ambitious demonstration program, $1.5 billion new federal dollars to help communities all across America give $1,000 scholarships to children” in a program that would work like the GI Bill after World War II.
Describing the original GI Bill as an initiative that “created opportunity for Americans who never would have had it, and in doing so it helped create the best system of colleges and universities in the world,” the President emphasized the openness of the plan to allow scholarships to be used at any lawfully operating school—public, private, or religious.
Responding to critics who attack the program on the ground that it permits government money to go to religious schools, the President asserted that “This is aid to the families, not aid to institutions…. If you set the clock back to the creation of that original GI Bill, no one told the GIs that they couldn’t go to SMU or Notre Dame or Yeshiva or Howard. I haven’t heard members of Congress suggest that students stop using Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans at Baptist colleges or Presbyterian seminaries. I don’t hear an outcry because poor children at Catholic schools get their lunch paid for by federal taxpayers. In the same way, parents must be free to use this money at the school they believe will best teach their child.”
Rousing applause greeted the President’s observation, “For too long, we’ve shielded schools from competition—allowed our schools a damaging monopoly power over our children. And this monopoly turns students into statistics and turns parents into pawns. It is time we began thinking of a system of public education in which many providers offer a marketplace of opportunities.”
A fresh round of applause was returned when the President commented, “To those who claim that school choice will hurt the public schools, let me underscore this point: All of this new money can go to public schools if that's where the…family chooses to have the kid go…[The] decision will be in the hands of families—where it belongs!”
Describing how the program could work, the U.S. Department of Education explains, “Once Congress enacts President Bush’s proposal for this competitive four-year grant program, any State or locality can apply for enough Federal funds to give each child of a middle- or low-income family a $1,000 annual scholarship. The governmental unit would have to
- take significant steps to provide a choice of schools to families with school children in the area;
- permit families to spend the $1,000 Federal scholarships at a wide variety of public and private schools;
- allow all lawfully operating schools in the area—public, private, and religious—to participate if they choose.”
Parents in eligible families (most likely having an annual income under $40,000) could use the scholarship funds for tuition and fees at the school they select, for reasonable transportation costs to the school, and/or to obtain supplementary academic services. The U.S. Department of Education indicates that “While the Secretary of Education expects to issue regulations defining what may be approved supplementary academic services, the intention of this proposal is to encourage schools and others to create a marketplace of educational opportunities for children outside traditional school hours. Services may include other academic programs for children before and after school, on weekends, and during school vacation periods.”
It is possible that home-schooling families could receive these $1,000 scholarships if their income levels qualify them and if their home education programs meet the requirements of state compulsory attendance laws. Since up to $500 of each scholarship can be applied to educational enrichment, a sizable fund for travel and special materials could be available.
The Washington Post (June 26, 1992) reports that Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, sees the program as “ ‘nothing more than desperate election-year rhetoric’ aimed at conservatives” and a “ ‘dangerous threat’ to the nation’s public school system, a point echoed by several Democratic congressmen involved in educational issues.”
Lamar Alexander told the same reporters that “restricting choice to public schools would be like giving bonuses to Russian car manufacturers and saying ‘work a little harder,’ or asking the Pony Express to run faster.”
It is clear that this proposal will provoke debate, but the President affirms a strong commitment to reissue the choice concept again and again during his second term until passage can be achieved. Citing examples provided by the Milwaukee choice plan, corporate scholarship programs in Indianapolis and San Antonio, and legislative thrusts in California and Pennsylvania, the President stressed in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Revolutions do not go backward.”