President Trump's victory in the 2016 election and Betsy DeVos' subsequent confirmation as secretary of education have school choice advocates looking for one of their biggest policy successes in the history of their movement.
Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., wants to capitalize on that control of government by making it easier for parents to pay for their kids to receive an education outside the public school system. He has proposed legislation geared toward giving flexibility to low-income and middle class families. It would loosen restrictions on education savings accounts to allow parents to use those savings for secondary education tuition or even for the costs of homeschooling. Its most dramatic effect is that it would give states the ability to use federal funding to subsidize the tuition of low-income students who choose to enroll in private or charter schools.
"While we recognize on a per-student basis, this is a few thousand dollars per student, but you're still talking about millions of kids and billions of dollars," he told the Washington Examiner. "Lots of parents are scraping by to send their child to a school of choice and sacrificing financially to do so, and I just don't believe those parents should have to pay twice."
With an intense political fight over the Common Core education standards favored by the Obama administration in recent memory, Messer emphasizes that his bill wouldn't require states to do anything. "It is federalist in nature, meaning that it doesn't require states to use Title I money in this way, but it does empower states to use Title I money in this way," Messer added.
"And it's basically about empowering America's parents and empowering America's kids, working to make sure every kid in America gets a chance to go to a high-quality school. And I trust America's parents."
The Indiana Republican relies on that mantra of trusting parents to deflect challenges that federal subsidies shouldn't go to schools that might have idiosyncratic curricula or struggle to provide for special-needs students.
"I have an autistic nephew, so I care a lot of about special-needs students, and I believe that we need to do more to make sure that special-needs kids get high-quality opportunities as well. But I go back to the principle: You trust parents," he said. "And if the parent puts their child in a school that doesn't provide some of these additional services, that's their choice."
That argument failed to persuade a majority of senators to include the proposal in the reform of federal education law that passed last year. Messer, however, thinks he has a shot at getting the bill to Trump's desk in this Congress.
"The environment has dramatically changed. No major-party candidate in the history of our republic spoke about school choice as much as Donald Trump," he said. "Now you've got Senate leadership, you've got House leadership, you've got leadership in the White House."
DeVos could prove to be a critical ally due to her background as a leading school choice advocate. Furthermore, the Trump team hired Rob Goad, a longtime Messer aide, as an education policy adviser.
"Rob understands these issues well — he was the staff leadership in the build-out of the school choice caucus," he said. "I think there is lots of reasons for optimism. Whether that happens this year or next year is going to be dependent on how quickly Betsy DeVos and her team get moving and how quickly we could reach consensus around a couple of these big ideas. And I'm very optimistic that by next year we could get something passed."
That win could lead to other legislative victories. "I think passing this legislation would not only make a difference for millions of America's kids, it would forever change the broader public debate on school choice issues across this country," Messer said.