Marco Rubio: School choice is a key to revitalizing middle class

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., devoted a substantial portion of a major speech this week to education reform, saying public schools are a “disaster” for millions of disadvantaged American kids and pointing to parental school choice as a critical piece in uplifting the middle class.

More charter schools and more career and technical academies are among the changes necessary to ensure that people have the skills needed for the middle-class jobs of the future, Rubio, a Republican from Miami, said at the Jack Kemp Foundation’s Leadership Award Dinner (C-SPAN video here). He also proposed creation of a corporate federal tax credit to provide scholarships to low-income students who want to attend private schools.

“The bottom line is we are trying to prepare 21st century students using a 20th century education model,” Rubio said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “Now is the time to be creative, innovative and daring in reforming the way we provide our people the skills they need to make it to the middle class.”

Rubio is a longtime school choice supporter. But his latest remarks on the subject are noteworthy given the timing and context. In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s loss, Republicans are re-branding their image to better appeal to middle-class voters – and Rubio squarely framed school choice as a vehicle for equal opportunity and upward mobility. Rubio’s points also dovetail with arguments long made by choice groups such as the Florida-based Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. Minority voters are increasingly warming to vouchers, tax credit scholarships and other forms of expanded school choice, and polls suggest they may likewise warm to politicians who embrace such options.

In another section of his speech, Rubio mitigated his harsh assessment of failing schools, acknowledging the tough job schools face and offering sympathy for those in the trenches: “But perhaps the most effective thing we in government can do about societal breakdown is acknowledge the impact it is having. Ask any of the amazing teachers we are blessed to have here in America. I have four of them in my own family. They are on the frontlines of this problem. They will be the first to tell you that every single day, kids bring their home experience in to the classrooms. Every day, they see firsthand how kids living in dysfunctional homes are going to really struggle to make it. As a people, we cannot build a vibrant and broad-based middle class if we do not solve this problem.”

Here is the main section of the speech that touched on education:

But no matter how many middle class jobs are created, you can’t grow the middle class if people do not have the skills to get hired for these jobs.

Not so long ago, even if you didn’t graduate from high school, if you were willing to work, you could find a job that paid enough for you to buy a home, start a family and eventually send your kids to college and a better life. Those days are long gone, and they are probably never coming back.

Today, education plays a central role in the 21st century knowledge economy. Four-year college graduates earn an average of 70 percent more than those without such a degree. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has to get a four year degree from a university in order to get ahead. I am proud that my hometown, Miami, is the home of Miami-Dade College, one our nations pioneers in education-for-work programs. Years ago, they set up numerous work training programs by working with employers to design the curriculum, and provide mentoring and internship opportunities. Even if you don’t go the traditional college route, you can secure a good living by earning an education that is customized to your interests and strengths.

So what are the things government should be doing in education?

First, our elementary and secondary schools need state level curriculum reform and new investment in continuing teacher training. We have an opportunity through the 2013 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to make some major improvements.

Second, the public school system for millions of disadvantaged American children is a disaster. Many of these schools deny opportunity to those who need it most. We need to allow charter schools and other innovative schools to flourish. The key to that is empowering parents. Parents should be the ultimate decision makers on where their children go to school. But poor and working class parents often have no choice about what schools their children can attend. All our parents should be able to send their children to the school of their choice. For parents with special needs children, the freedom to choose their kids school is especially important.

Third, our tax code should reward investment in education. If you invest in a business by buying a machine, you get a tax credit for the cost. If there is a tax credit for investing in equipment, shouldn’t there be a tax credit for investing in people?

Let’s provide tax encouragement to help parents pay for the school of their choice. Lets create a corporate federal tax credit to a qualifying, non-profit 501(c)(3) Education Scholarship Organization, so that students from low income families can receive a scholarship to pay for the cost of a private education of their parents choosing.

Fourth, let’s encourage career, technical and vocational education. Why cant more of our students graduate with a high school diploma and an industry certification in a trade or career? Lets find ways for our returning veterans to put the skills they’ve developed in the Armed Forces to use in civilian job opportunities.

Fifth, let’s look for ways to address soaring college costs and encourage skill development that doesn’t require the traditional four year college route. The groundswell of creativity and technological change in higher education will lead to dramatic reductions in the time and expense of higher education, so long as government financial policy doesn’t stand in the way. We should make sure our federal aid programs don’t discriminate against online course credits and help give parents and students more choices.

And finally we need to reform our federal college grant and loan programs. College affordability is an issue that is very personal to me. The only reason why I was able to go to college was because of federal grants and loans. But when I graduated from law school, I had close to $150,000 in student debt.

A debt I paid off just this year with the proceeds of my book An American Son, the perfect holiday gift and available on Amazon for only $11.99.

Let’s explore integrating the Pell Grant program with our tax system. And before they take out a student loan, lets make sure students and their parents know how long it will take them to complete their education, what their likelihood of completion is, how much they can expect to make after graduation, and how much their monthly payment on the loan is going to be.

The Know Before You Go Act which I co-sponsored with Senator Wyden of Oregon would ensure future students and their families can make well-informed decisions by having access to information about things like their expected post-graduation earning potential, and how long it will take them to pay off their student loans.

The bottom line is we are trying to prepare 21st century students using a 20th century education model. Now is the time to be creative, innovative and daring in reforming the way we provide our people the skills they need to make it to the middle class.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at