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Stealth Attack on Public Schools

March 9, 2017


Amid the furor over RussiaGate and repeal of the Affordable Care Act, most of us had missed the introduction of House Resolution 610 (aka Choices in Education Act) which would radically change and limit federal government authority in American public education. The bill, sponsored by Republican representative Steve King of Iowa (and co-sponsored by 3 other Republicans) would do two things: a) repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and limit the authority of the Department of Education to bestowing block grants on states that comply with school voucher requirements, and b) eliminate the rule that established nutritional requirements for school lunch and breakfast programs. To read the summary and full text of the bill, click here.

Just to be clear how truly breathtaking this bill is, it would require states to create a system of school vouchers that could be used in any private elementary or secondary school in order to get any federal funds for education. And it would reduce the Department of Education to a dispenser of block grants to the states that complied. In the words of the bill: “The Secretary shall not impose any further requirements on States with respect to elementary and secondary education beyond the requirements of this title.” In other words, no standards for educational achievement, diversity, equality, special needs, etc. And it would let the states put junk food back in school lunches!

To put it another way, it would take the federal government completely out of the business of education except for providing a monetary incentive for states to issue vouchers for use in private schools. Basically, the bill combines a blunt instrument for diverting federal education funds into private (including religious or for-profit) schools with the dissolution of the Department of Education.  Everybody wins, right?

Well, not exactly. Let’s start by looking at what would be lost by repealing the ESEA, which was passed to address the vast disparities in American public education in terms of race and geography by redirecting resources to poorly served areas and minority groups. Obviously, those disparities have not disappeared, but there has been progress, and the subsequent iterations of ESEA (which has to be re-authorized every five years) have dealt with other issues by instituting programs for struggling learners, AP classes, ESL classes, classes for minorities such as Native Americans, Rural Education, Education for the Homeless, School Safety (Gun-Free schools), Monitoring and Compliance and Federal Accountability Programs, special needs education, bullying, etc. The current version of the ESEA is the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 to replace its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 under the Bush administration.  The latest version places less emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of school performance.

Repealing ESEA would mean that programs and standards would be left to state and local administrations without federal oversight, and state and local school boards tend to be more susceptible to political manipulation. In fact, educational achievement varies enormously among the states with Massachusetts and Vermont typically scoring at the top and Mississippi and Alabama at the bottom.  Scores in some low-performing localities like DC have improved markedly in recent years. For an interactive comparison, click here.

But the primary focus of HR 610 is obviously to promote the privatization of public education. This, of course, is what Betsy DeVos is all about, so you could easily say that this is exactly why she is the Secretary of Education. Perhaps even more fervently than even the rest of the Republican party, she has tirelessly spent her time and, more importantly, her money promoting the idea that public funds should be used for sending kids to private and religious schools.

There are two reasons to oppose this. One is philosophical and the other is practical. I personally believe that having good public schools is a large part of what made the US the great country that it became, and that it is a basic element of social justice to do everything possible to insure that kids from disadvantaged circumstances have an opportunity to get a quality public education just as my own middle-class children did. I also believe that it is wrong and unconstitutional to use public funds to support schools that promote any particular religious agenda.

But let’s talk about the practical aspect of this, and by that I mean results. It is easy enough to find individual students who have benefitted from voucher programs that enabled them to attend private schools. But policy needs to be based on aggregate results, not cherry-picked cases.

The problem is that the evidence available from many years of school voucher programs in various locations is ambiguous at best. A recently-released Stanford University study of programs in Milwaukee, New York City, Washington DC, Indiana, and Louisiana over 25 years found that there was “no evidence that voucher programs significantly increase test scores…At best, they have only a modest impact on high school graduation rates,…and the risks they pose outweigh any advances.” Other serious attempts to measure the impact of such programs have come to much the same conclusion–some schools do a little better, some do a little worse, but vouchers are not the magic cure for what ails our public schools.

The Stanford study concluded that there are “policy changes that are likely to have much higher payoffs than privatization,…including teacher training, early childhood education, after-school and summer programs, student health programs and heightened standards in math, reading and science curricula.” All of these things are jeopardized by HR 610.

What voucher programs unquestionably do, however, is to transfer public resources to religious organizations and for-profit corporations. Indeed, the majority of the voucher-based school programs that DeVos promoted in Michigan involved for-profit corporations. Moreover, unless states establish strict accountability standards, private schools may not be subject to the same scrutiny that public schools are. At her hearing, DeVos steadfastly refused to say if she would require equal accountability for private schools benefitting from a voucher program.

Other types of programs, such as Florida’s “tax credit scholarship” program (which Trump has touted) enable corporations to get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations. Parents can get up to $5,886 per student (about $2,000 less than the average cost of Florida private schools) and apply that money toward tuition at a set list of private K-12 schools. About 85 percent of the schools in the program are religious schools. The program essentially distorts the tax revenue stream by diverting corporate tax dollars directly into private schools.

There are now 17 states with tax credit scholarship programs, but HR 610 would force all states to set up a voucher program of some sort to get their block grants of federal educations funds.  So much for letting the states and localities decide.

Fortunately, the fate of this bill is questionable at this point, but it clearly indicates the direction that the Trump administration wants to go.  It needs to be firmly put down before it gets any further. The problem is that with everything else going on, few people may be paying attention.





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