HR 610 Vouchers Unlikely; DC Voucher Renewal Advances Without Protecting Vulnerable Students

There is a lot of fear about House Resolution 610, Iowa Rep. Steve King’s proposal for national school vouchers that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. But don’t be too fearful; this particular bill is unlikely to go anywhere.

Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s primary reporters on federal education legislation, explains what this bill is: “The Choices in Education Act of 2017… would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main K-12 law, of which the Every Student Succeeds Act is the latest version. It would create vouchers funded by Washington for parents to use at private schools if they chose to do so, or to use for home schooling their child. Under King’s legislation, the federal government would fund those vouchers through creating block grants for states… In addition, King’s bill would overturn nutritional standards published in 2012 for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs.”

The purpose of Ujifusa’s recent column is to calm widespread worries about the bill, concerns tied to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ declared commitment to launching a federal voucher program of some kind. Ujifusa reminds readers that DeVos cannot institute a voucher program without Congressional approval; he adds that rural members of Congress, “have expressed concern about a federal voucher program, in part because they don’t feel private school choice will help many of the children back home.” Ujifusa explains that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. King, does not sit on the House committee that oversees education, and the bill is legislatively complicated because another committee on agriculture would have to oversee the provisions of the bill to change the school lunch program. Ujifusa adds: “In fact, in 2015, the Senate rejected (Sen. Lamar) Alexander’s proposed amendment to ESSA that would have instituted a voucher program. And the Senate now has more Democratic lawmakers than it did then. It’s unlikely any Democrat will vote to create nationwide, federal vouchers.”

Congress will likely need a different vehicle from HR. 610 if it acts on Trump’s and DeVos’s promise of a federal voucher program. But Congress is moving forward with another voucher bill, one that has historically been opposed by Democrats, but a bill that has passed before and is likely to pass again in a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers. This is the renewal of the Washington, D.C. voucher program.  Keep in mind that Washington, D.C. does not have voting representation in Congress. That means this bill is the ultimate piece of legislation for other people’s children. Whatever happens with D.C. vouchers, there won’t be political consequences for any elected member of Congress.

Here is Jenna Portnoy explaining the D.C. voucher bill for the Washington Post: “The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act, known as SOAR, gives federal dollars to low-income D.C. students who want to transfer from struggling public schools to a private school. The program, created by Congress in 2004, also provides additional federal dollars to traditional public schools and public charter schools in the District.”

In a letter to leaders of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee that is currently holding hearings on the SOAR Act, the National Coalition for Public Education, a coalition of 62 national organizations that has consistently opposed school vouchers, points out that the D.C. Voucher Program, in existence now for over a decade, has not been shown to improve education for the majority of the students who have participated: “All four of the congressionally mandated USED (U.S. Department of Education) studies that have analyzed the D.C. voucher program have concluded that it did not significantly improve reading or math achievement. The USED studies further found that the voucher program had no effect on student satisfaction, motivation or engagement, or student views on school safety… GAO (Government Accountability Office) reports from both 2007 and 2013 document that the D.C. voucher program has repeatedly failed to meet basic and even statutorily required accountability standards. The 2013 report concluded that the administrator of the program has continually failed to ensure the program operated with basic accountability measures and quality controls and even failed to maintain adequate records on its own financial accounting… A special investigation conducted by the Washington Post found that many of the private schools in the program are not quality schools.”

Valerie Strauss published a column earlier this week about one of the SOAR Act’s greatest flaws: it does not protect the civil rights of participating students. “Democratic members offered amendments that would prohibit voucher schools from discriminating against students on the basis of ‘actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity’ and requiring each voucher school to provide every student with special needs ‘with all of the applicable protections available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.’ They were voted down along party lines, with all Republicans voting against.” “Students with disabilities who attend a private school with a voucher awarded through the program lose some of the civil rights protections they are granted under IDEA. For example, IDEA requires that traditional public schools have an individualized education program that spells out needed support and accommodations for students with disabilities, but private schools aren’t required to offer one. That’s common with state-funded voucher and tax-credit programs, including tax-credit programs in Florida championed by DeVos.”

Marc Egan, who leads government relations for the National Education Association, is quoted by the Washington Post analyzing D.C. private schools that accept tuition vouchers: “They may discriminate against a student based on his or her gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history.”

While Washington, D.C. does not have a voting member of Congress, the nation’s capital is represented by non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose testimony on the SOAR Act is quoted by the Washington Post.  Norton is not at all impressed with the D.C. Voucher Program she has been observing since 2004, and she opposes its renewal: “The D.C. voucher program has failed its central purpose: It has not improved academic achievement, as measured by math and reading tests…. The program is therefore patently unnecessary.”

The Overlay of Economic Injustice and Race in America

Earlier this week the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz offered a personal and sober view of American society and the economy fifty years after the March on Washington: “Dr. King realized that the struggle for social justice had to be conceived broadly: it was a battle not just against racial segregation and discrimination, but for greater economic equality and justice for all Americans. It was not for nothing that the march’s organizers, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, had called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Fifty years ago Stiglitz traveled to Washington for the March.  A recent college graduate, he was set to enter a graduate program in economics just a few weeks later.  He writes that the March on Washington and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King were instrumental in inspiring him to focus his career on economic inequality.

Today, fifty years later, we know that children’s opportunities remain constrained by inequality and continuing racial and economic segregation. Our dilemma is neither merely the failure to have achieved racial justice nor rapidly accelerating economic injustice; the two are overlaid for the mass of black and brown children.  According to Stiglitz, today the median income of black families is 58 percent of the median income of white families, with the median total wealth of whites 20 times that of blacks.  Stiglitz reports that 65 percent of African American children live in low income families, and “The Great Recession of 2007-9 was particularly hard on African-Americans (as it typically is on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum). They saw their median wealth fall by 53 percent between 2005 and 2009, more than three times that of whites: a record gap.”

Stiglitz summarizes the mass of factors that conspire to undermine educational opportunity.  While an income-inequality achievement gap has now surpassed the racial achievement gap in American public schools, it is important to remember that for a mass of children the gap is one and the same. Today American children of color are too often segregated in all poor public schools.

Only a year before the March on Washington—in 1962, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, a book that opened America’s eyes at least temporarily to the poverty and inequality our society had chosen not to see.  Harrington’s indictment continues to describe our very separate and unequal society: “There is a familiar America. It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known… This book is… about the other America. Here are the unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life… Now the American city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else. Middle-class women coming in from Suburbia on a rare trip may catch the merest glimpse of the other America on the way to an evening at the theater, but their children are segregated in suburban schools.”

I wonder what we choose to see today. Stiglitz’s important piece this week is aimed to help us open our eyes.