Even before Betsy DeVos squeaked past the Senate and became the Secretary of Education, Congress moved to implement her primary objective, a school choice option for all students supported by federal dollars.
On January 23, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, introduced H.R. 610, or The Choices in Education Act of 2017 that would use federal funds—in the form of school vouchers—to pay private school tuition for any children whose parents wanted them out of public schools; it would also reimburse parents for the cost of home-schooling.
Mike Myers, Seneca Nation, described introduction of the legislation as “a sad day for public education in the United States.” Especially for Native American students. “American Indians are always on the short end of the stick when it comes to education,” he said, “so any radical changes that don’t show some kind of benefit flowing to the indigenous schools or rural schools is going to compound the problems we already have.” Myers is a long-time advocate for indigenous rights, a former program director for The Seventh Generation Fund, and recipient of the Harvard Kennedy School Asher Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation “Bright Ideas” Award for work in strengthening indigenous government.
Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, has said, “School choice is only a good thing when that choice is equitable, culturally grounded, and rooted in our shared democratic and inclusive values.” Nothing in this legislation reflects those values.
School choice by definition drains funds from public school systems. “What happens when you establish a school voucher program is that it really is designed to weaken the public school system,” said Bill Blackwell Jr., Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College. “In my estimation, H.R. 610 is not good for Indian country,” Blackwell said.
Some Big Problems for American Indian Students
A Government Accountability Office report released in September examined whether students participating in school voucher programs and attending private schools were receiving the “equitable services,” such as tutoring and speech therapy, to which they are entitled. In general, they are not, the report found.
Private schools, explained Blackwell, are not bound by the provisions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). So students who have individualized education plans (IEPs) in public schools essentially waive all of the rights and services that go with those plans if they use a voucher program to attend a private school. “If you participate in the voucher system, you’re really forfeiting the protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. There are a lot of students who need those protections,” Blackwell said.
This is particularly disturbing because in some states, one criterion for participation in the school voucher program is that the child have an IEP, that is, be identified as a special needs student.
Another problem is that school voucher programs have not been shown consistently to improve academic achievement.
In fact, exactly the opposite is true in some places, according to the Brookings Institute. “Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large.” Overall, studies of voucher programs and academic achievement have shown mixed results, according to the institute.
Historically, private school students scored higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than public school students, but by 2011 the gap had closed significantly because public schools had improved.
So H.R. 610 would take funding away from the public sector and put it into private hands, even though “there’s no proof that the privatization of schools is the way to go. The [results] aren’t there. You’re pointing to a model that doesn’t show results as a way to get results,” Blackwell said.
Further, said Blackwell, “There’s no guarantee at a private school that there’s going to be things like language and culture instruction, whereas in the public school system if you have more than 10 American Indian students in a school, you have the right to an advisory council, you have the right to a local parent Indian education committee. All of these things that people have fought for for years, the civil rights movements that got us to where we are today, can all be repealed by this one bill.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued the following statement when the GAO report was released: “The GAO confirms basic facts we have long known …. Vouchers exacerbate inequity by directly draining critical funding away from public schools—often the schools that need that funding most.”
No Federal Oversight of Education. None.
The Choices in Education Act of 2017 has some important provisions that set the stage for a virtual free-for-all in public education. First, it repeals that Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This law gives the federal government its most important authority in regard to education and allows the government to defend the civil rights of poor, minority and special needs children. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 is the most recent version of ESEA, and if H.R. 610 passes, ESSA is simply gone.
Second, this is a state-administered program. The federal money for the vouchers goes to the states, which distribute the money to school districts. The words “tribe,” “American Indian” and “Alaska Native” do not appear anywhere in the legislation.
Third, the bill limits U.S. Department of Education authority to evaluating state applications and making payments to states. “The Secretary [of Education] shall not impose any further requirements on States with respect to elementary and secondary education,” which, with ESSA gone, begs the question of what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will actually do for the next four years.
President Trump’s Budget
President Donald Trump has proposed a budget for 2018 that would cut funding for the Department of Education by $9 billion, or 13 percent, from 2017 levels but make available $1.4 billion for “public and private school choice,” including an additional $168 million for charter schools, currently funded at $333 million, $250 million for a “new private school choice program,” which would include paying tuition at religious schools, and $1 billion more for Title I with the proviso that funding would follow students to the public school (and this includes charter schools) of his or her parents’ choice. This is the “portability” provision that was rejected in crafting ESSA.
The president has said this budget represents a “down payment” on the $20 billion he promised for school choice during the election. Weingarten added in his response to the GAO report cited above: “This report was in the making long before Donald Trump announced his half-baked, ideology-driven plan to redirect $20 billion in federal education funding to a voucher scheme.”
Trump promised on the campaign trail, “As president, I will establish the national goal of providing school choice to every American child living in poverty. If we can put a man on the moon, dig out the Panama Canal and win two world wars, then I have no doubt that we as a nation can provide school choice to every disadvantaged child in America.”
That may be. But what he does not say is that providing school choice under his plan will deprive those same children of the civil rights protections and special education services that are now guaranteed by ESSA and will most likely land them in schools even more ill-equipped to educate them than whatever school they now attend. The school choice movement benefits only private schools and the corporations that run them. And ultimately it will benefit the corporations that run our privatized prisons. Low literacy rates are tied intimately to incarceration rates.
Finally, H.R. 610 would make it even more difficult for poor children to learn because it repeals the national school lunch and breakfast nutrition standards put in place by the Obama administration.
The school voucher bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Andy Harris, R-Md., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas was originally a co-sponsor but has withdrawn his support.
Vouchers, Tax Credits and ESAs
School vouchers such as those proposed in this legislation are just one mechanism used to support school choice. Here are some definitions:
School vouchers allow parents to use the public funding that would have been paid to educate their child in a public school toward tuition at a secular or religious private school. Currently, 14 states have school voucher programs, usually limited to certain groups of kids, such as special needs kids, or kids from low-income families, or kids attending a failing school. The first school voucher program began in 1990.
Tax credit scholarship programs allow businesses and/or individuals to donate money to an organization that gives scholarships to kids to help pay their private school tuition. The donor gets a tax credit (not a tax deduction). Some states allow parents to take tax credits for all or part of the private school tuition they pay for their kids.
Education savings accounts are funded by states based on a per-pupil funding formula. Parents participating in the program can withdraw money from their child’s ESA to help pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online education programs, home schooling or other educational expenses. ESAs were pioneered in Arizona, which expanded the program in 2015 to include Native kids living on tribal lands through Native American Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Currently, 93 American Indian students, of the 50,000 the state says would be eligible, participate in the program, according to Stefan Swiat, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Education. Swiat said the state does not track kids with ESAs, so he has no information on whether the parent of Native American kids using the program are satisfied with the results.
The GAO report noted that between 2010-2011 school year and the 2014-2015 school year the number of children participating in private school choice programs more than doubled to 147,000 and the amount of money being diverted from public schools was commensurate, increasing from $400 million in 2010-2011 to $895 million in 2014-2015.