During his campaign, President Donald Trump proposed a $20 billion voucher program for low-income students.
During his address to Congress in February, Trump said, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time. I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”
In line with Trump’s pledge to support school choice, congressional Republicans introduced and reintroduced several congressional school choice bills during School Choice Week at the end of January.
Array of Legislation
Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) reintroduced in January House Resolution 716, the Enhancing Educational Opportunities for All Students Act. The legislation would allot $14.5 billion in Title I federal funds for low-income students to attend their choice of a public or private school. At press time, HR 716 remains under consideration by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) reintroduced in January Senate Bill 265, the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act (CHOICE Act). The CHOICE Act would create grants for special education school choice programs and award scholarships to children of military families, among other things. At press time, Scott’s bill remains pending before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced House Resolution 610, the Choices in Education Act of 2017, in January. “This bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and limits the authority of the Department of Education (ED) such that ED is authorized only to award block grants to qualified states,” according to a description posted on Congress.gov.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced a one-sentence bill, House Resolution 899, in February that states, “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.” The bill has not, so far, moved out of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) opposes HR 610.
“HSLDA has repeatedly told our friends on Capitol Hill that our members and many other homeschooling families know that government dollars will eventually result in government regulation,” HSLDA Federal Relations Director Will Estrada wrote on the organization’s website in February. “Although we are grateful for our friends on Capitol Hill, and although we know that [the bill sponsors] are well-intentioned, they need to hear loud and clear from the homeschool community. Even though the vouchers created by H.R. 610 would be voluntary, we believe that this would be a slippery slope toward more federal involvement and control in homeschooling.”
Limited Federal Role
Jason Bedrick, policy director for EdChoice, says the federal government has a very small, constitutionally defined role in education.
“The U.S. Constitution clearly gives Congress jurisdiction in Washington, DC and with military families and the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Native American reservations; there is a role where the federal government could enact choice programs,” Bedrick said.
The federal government can and should promote school choice in a way that respects states’ authority, says Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions.
“If they do develop a federal program to incentivize private school choice, they need to be careful not to attach a lot of strings to that program and basically end up telling states what to do and what not to do and violating federalism concerns,” Wolf said.
“One thing they could do is provide resources,” said Wolf. “Private school choice programs face challenges in the first few years, fiscally. Generally, these programs save states money, but public schools receive money based on the previous year [of student enrollment], so the state often has to pay for two school seats. The federal government could provide startup funds to get them over the hump of ‘phantom’ funds.”
‘Very Serious Concerns’
Bedrick says he’s concerned about the federal government overstepping its authority.
“We wouldn’t support any legislation that would create a nationwide regulatory structure for school choice programs,” Bedrick said. “Different states have different policy based on the particular needs of the people in those states. It’s a beautiful thing that we have federalism, where states can move in different directions. What we don’t want is one national set of rules. Certainly, a national voucher program would be something we would be against. That would raise very serious concerns.”
‘We Want to Empower Parents’
Bedrick says local legislation is best at making parents the decision-makers regarding their children’s education.
“The purpose of the school choice programs is to empower parents to give kids the best education that’s tailored to them,” Bedrick said. “We don’t want to create a program at the federal level that tries to do that but has the unintended effect of disempowering parents with a distant regulatory framework versus one that is closer to parents’ voices. We want to empower parents. That is our number one goal, what mechanisms are the best for doing that.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.