Stay Informed: H.R. 610 The Choices in Education Act
H.R. 610: Radical Transformation of Public Education
In January, 2017, the House of Representative leader from Iowa, Steve King, introduced a bill that, if passed, would radically transform public education. The bill, H.R. 610, also known as the Choices in Education Act of 2017, is the first piece of education legislation under the Trump administration. I encourage you to go to Congress.gov to read the bill and track its movement through the legislative process. I also encourage you to read several opinions by education leaders and organizations that share greater insight on the impact the bill would have on public education if it becomes law.
From my reading of the bill and several other articles, there are three things you should know. First, the bill proposes the repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. Second, the bill would enact the No Hungry Kids Act, which turns back healthy standards and calorie limits for school food programs. Third and perhaps most substantial, H.R. 610 limits the authority of the Department of Education and establishes school choice through vouchers. The Department would be authorized only to award block grants to “qualified” states to distribute money in the form of vouchers to “eligible” public, private and homeschool students. So, let’s take a deeper look into why these three things matter to our communities and our children.
Repeal of the ESEA of 1965
The ESEA was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty. The central purpose of the ESEA was to provide equal opportunity in education by establishing additional government funding to schools in low income communities. As you can probably surmise, a shift in funding from schools in need to schools and parents in support of private and homeschool education choice could imperil a vast number of Title 1 schools across the nation. One report I read stated the impact would be felt by 56,000 schools and 21 million children.
Rollback of Student Nutrition Standards
Second, the No Hungry Kids Act would roll back healthy food standards and calorie limits outlined in a federal regulation established under the Obama administration. It is less clear to me what the bill aims to accomplish as it relates to student nutrition at school. Perhaps it is merely that the author believes school nutrition is the discretion of states. What is paramount is that for children in high-need schools, the lunch and breakfast programs are a big part of the students’ daily nutritional and caloric intake. I support the higher standards of the regulation currently in place that include more fruits and vegetables and low sugar and sodium foods and drinks.
Establishment of an Education Voucher Program
H.R. 610, or The Choices in Education Act, would severely limit the role of the Department of Education. In fact, its only function would be to distribute block grants for vouchers to qualified states. All other federal functions regarding K-12 education would cease. This would be a win for those who believe states are in the best position to set education standards and governance. However, it is deeply concerning to those who argue that the inconsistency in education standards and funding would further cripple public education and likely education overall.
The heart of the bill is the establishment of an education voucher program. Qualified states would receive block grants from the Department of Education in proportion to the number of eligible students. A state is qualified if it agrees to comply with education voucher program requirements and make it lawful for parents of an eligible child to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the state or homeschool. States that do not opt in would not receive federal funds. An eligible child is any child age 5-17 years of age.
Critics of H.R. 610
Critics of H.R. 610 argue that school funding does not take into account differentiated need. Students in wealthy districts receive the same funding formula as those in poor districts. In essence, where the need is greater, there is no provision that provides additional funding to address the greater need. Thus, our students in impoverished communities would still not reach a level playing field. And, it’s not just the economic level of the community. Families at all socioeconomic levels would receive the same appropriation, as well as religious and non-religious schools.
Who is Not Included as “Eligible” Students?
There is also no provision mentioned in the bill for students without a fixed parent or guardian or a permanent address (for example, some homeless students or students in foster care). Would they be considered eligible under H.R. 610? It is unclear. The bill is also unclear about education standards schools must meet to be eligible for funding. Perhaps this will be the subject of amendments if the bill makes it through the Congressional review. Currently, the bill does not hold schools (public, traditional private, charter, or homeschool) accountable for meeting any standards or thresholds of student progress. Do they really mean to provide funding without any requirements for quality education and outcomes? This lack of performance standards should be a non-starter for H.R. 610.
Distribution of block grants based on the number of eligible students without regard to student need is what we call the spread the peanut butter approach in my corporate life. It doesn’t work in corporate America and I suspect it will not work as an education reform tactic either. Unless key elements of the bill change, I agree with the critics that if H.R. 610 becomes law, we will take a giant step backwards in improving education in the United States. And, we will virtually dismantle public education. This should be of extreme concern to all of us because 90% of American students attend public school.
Reaction to H.R. 610 from a Home School Association
Even the reaction from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) rejects the bill. The HSLDA says the bill is well-intentioned, but ill-advised. They are on record as saying the bill is okay for public and traditional private schools. They say it aims to give students stuck in failing schools a choice to enroll in other schools who can meet their needs. However, for homeschoolers, the association says that government money will lead to government control, which they oppose. The HSLDA makes the assumption that there will be federal education standards set, but again, that is not included in the current bill.
Making All Public Schools, Schools of Choice
School choice sounds good on its face, but how can we make all schools, schools of choice? That is the question education reformists study and struggle to help solve. I do not believe that depleting public schools of funds by giving vouchers to students to enroll in private or religious schools is an answer that satisfies the country’s education problem for many of the reasons I have mentioned above.
Thankfully, this bill does not seem to be gathering widespread support. But, we should expect some version of this legislation to find its way into debate and eventual law. This is the reason for this post: to help those of us interested in education reform to stay informed. The time for our involvement is now. We need a bill that is the result of a comprehensive and inclusive conversation about education reform. Ideally, the bill should be bipartisan because it affects all of our kids. We owe extra attention to high-needs schools and families. I hope that this article has shed some light on the proposed legislation. Moreover, I encourage everyone to do their own research and contact their legislators now. The education of our children is one of the most important rights afforded to them.
When we know better, we do better.
© 2017 Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
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