Marco Rubio’s school voucher plan shows strong Jeb Bush ties

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio immediately followed his rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night by releasing a “school-choice” bill to allow taxpayers to subsidize private-school education for poor kids.

By putting legislation where his mouth is, Rubio wanted to reinforce the theme of his speech — that conservative policy is good for the poor and working class.

The legislation, which revolves around tax credits, also makes good on a 2010 Rubio campaign pledge, and reinforces his strong ties to former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, his friend and mentor whose nonprofit education foundation helped shape the legislation.

Bush passed a similar school-choice voucher program in 2001, which Rubio voted for while he served in the Florida House.

If Florida’s experience is any measure, though, Democrats, teacher unions and some church-and-state separatists will oppose the scholarship-voucher program, saying it indirectly uses tax money to fund private, and often religious education.

“It’s not about unions. It’s not about school administrators,” Rubio said in an interview. “This is about parents. The only parents in America who don’t have a choice where their kids go to school are poor parents.”

Though Rubio’s rhetoric adopts longstanding Democratic talking points about the disadvantaged, the legislation will have a tough time in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.

Across the nation, Democrats and teacher unions have faced off with Bush and his nonprofit foundation as it pushes for more school-choice legislation. Rubio’s legislation, in conjunction with Bush’s lobbying efforts, could bring the fight to Capitol Hill.

It can be a good wedge issue as well for Republicans; black lawmakers, who tend to be Democratic, often support school-choice laws aimed at poor children.

The legislation also highlights the closeness of Rubio and Bush amid Washington speculation that the two might have a rivalry as each eyes a White House bid. Associates of the two say it’s far more likely Rubio will run than Bush; and there’s no real rivalry between them as both take leadership roles in the national immigration debate.

Rubio’s involvement in rounding up conservative support for immigration reform was a key factor in his selection by GOP leaders to rebut President Barack Obama’s speech. Rubio, however, doesn’t want to be limited to immigration policy — a reason he announced his Educational Opportunities Act right after his speech. The legislation should be introduced Wednesday.

Before his Tuesday night national address, Democrats accused him of supporting “extreme” budget policies that would cut social-welfare programs.

Democrats are sure to zero in on a potential irony of his legislation: It could technically increase the debt at the same time Rubio is talking about debt reduction.

Rubio said he doesn’t know how much the legislation could cost the federal treasury. It has not been analyzed yet, or scored, by the Congressional Budget Office. About 11 states have similar tax-credit programs with about $405 million in tax credits for 148,300 students.

Under Rubio’s legislation, corporations or individuals could annually donate a maximum $100,000 or $4,500, respectively. The money, for which the donor receives a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, flows to a nonprofit “Scholarship Grant Organization,” which then distributes money to private schools on behalf of thousands of students.

The students who qualify for the scholarship would come from families who earn 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $58,875 in a four-person household. The Florida median income for families of four: $65,728.

Florida has a similar scholarship voucher program, although the particulars of the write-offs and income levels are different. It also caps the amount each student receives at $4,533. That’s about 63 percent of the statewide average of tuition and fees, which vary by county, school and grade level. Florida has about 50,821 students who receive $229 million in tax credit benefits.

When he ran for Senate in 2010, Rubio called for a series of reforms, including the federal tax-credit program he’s proposing. The legislation was largely his brainchild, not Bush’s, and Rubio’s office reached out to the former governor’s foundation to help with some aspects of the drafting.

When Bush left office in 2007, Rubio was starting to serve his first year as Florida’s House speaker. He hired a large number of former Bush staffers, including one-time speechwriter Alberto Martinez, who works for Rubio today along with political advisor Todd Harris, Bush’s 2002 campaign spokesman.

Rubio also hired the husband of top Bush education wonk Pat Levesque, later appointed by Rubio to a state constitutional tax-and-budget reform commission.

Levesque is executive director of the nonprofit political group Foundation for Florida’s Future, which lobbies the Florida Legislature, and serves as CEO for the nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education, which weighed in on Rubio’s proposed legislation. Bush chairs both foundations.

The policies of Bush’s foundation have political risks and could have played a role in the downfall of Indiana’s schools chief, Tony Bennett, in the November elections to a teacher.

Bennett soon got a new job as education commissioner in Florida, Rubio and Bush’s home state.

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