Republicans Use School Choice to Spur Debate on Inequality Ahead of Obama's State of the Union

One plan would provide scholarships to approximately 11 million low-income students nationwide.

Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announce new legislation for providing scholarships for school choice programs at the American Enterpise Institute on Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
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A team of Republican senators announced new legislation for school choice that they say is a major component in expanding opportunity for low-income students, ahead of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, which will likely focus on inequality issues in America.

[READ: Justice Department Attempts to Block Louisiana School Voucher Program]

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., proposed plans Tuesday to redirect nearly $35 billion in existing federal education funds to supplement school choice programs in different states. Under Alexander's Scholarships for Kids Act, students in eligible states would receive $2,100 scholarships that would follow those children from families in poverty to the school of their choice. Alexander said the legislation would reach about 11 million American students.

"Equal opportunity in America should be that everyone has the same starting line as much as possible," Alexander said at an event where he announced the legislation Tuesday.

While the president's State of the Union address will focus on a "different view on how you move from the back to the front of the line," Alexander said, Republicans should welcome a debate about inequality in America.

"My hope is that our agenda will be to liberate the free enterprise system, to create more jobs with good wages instead of minimum wages, to create more job training, instead of perpetual compensation for unemployment, and to give parents more choices of a better school for their child so the child can get an even better job," Alexander said.

Critics of school choice and voucher programs have said they unnecessarily punish already underfunded schools, in some cases could actually increase segregation and that if implemented incorrectly, could put low-income students at a further disadvantage if they can't afford transportation costs to a different school.

Opponents have launched lawsuits against school choice programs in Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Hampshire, Colorado and notably in Louisiana, where the Justice Department attempted to block a portion of the state's voucher program, saying it "impeded the desegregation process."

Scott said the department's lawsuit used "civil rights as a way to keep kids stuck in failing schools."

"What we should ask ourselves is if failing schools produce failing products that don't have opportunities in the job market, should we then keep those kids trapped on that path?" Scott said.

Still, the National Education Association, a union representing 3 million teachers, has also expressed its opposition to school vouchers, saying they "divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools, while offering no real 'choice' for the overwhelming majority of students."

[ALSO: GOP, Justice Department Butt Heads Over Louisiana School Choice Lawsuit]

But Alexander and Scott say school choice at the K-12 level should be compared to federal financial aid that already exists in higher education, which Alexander said are "probably the most successful social programs we've ever had in the last 70 years."

"Our elementary and secondary education system is not the best in the world," Alexander said. "I believe one reason for this is that while more than 93 percent of federal dollars spent for higher education follow students to colleges of their choice, federal dollars do not automatically follow K-12 students to schools of their choice."

Many Democrats oppose school voucher programs because they worry doing so could hurt the infrastructure of the public school system by rerouting both students and federal funds to private and religious schools.

Federal financial aid in the higher education sector -- such as Pell Grants, student loans, and funds from the G.I. Bill -- Alexander said are the equivalent of higher education vouchers, "pure and simple."

Alexander said the federal scholarships would further supplement existing school choice programs at the state level. Currently, 16 states have private school choice programs, and 42 have inter-district public school choice programs, Alexander said.