Congress proposes expansion of school choice programs in DC

Elie Salem

Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently introduced a bill entitled the “Educational Freedom Accounts Act,” (EFAA) that aims to provide Education Savings Accounts to all DCPS students. Though the chances are slim, if the bill manages to pass it will represent the most significant expansion of school choice programs in the United States, providing all DCPS students with funds to pursue an array of alternative schooling opportunities.

Education savings accounts – which do not currently exist in DC – entitle parents who opt out of the public school system to a deposit in a government authorised savings account, of about 80% to 90% of the money DCPS spends educating their child, which is roughly $9,500. This money can only be used for educational expenses, such as paying for homeschooling materials, tutoring, and private school tuition. This is very similar to school voucher programs promoted by Republican education figures such as Betsy Devos, the key distinction being that vouchers can only be used for private school tuition.

While the passing of this bill would certainly represent a big change in DC’s public school system, in no way would it be the beginning of school choice in the city. DC has 44% of its students in charter schools, one of the highest percentages in the nation, and already employs a limited version of what Ted Cruz is moving to implement.

Low income DC residents are already entitled to school vouchers, a system whereby federal dollars subsidize poorer students who are attending a private school and are therefore opting out of the public school system.

These vouchers can often push students toward less reputable, unaccredited private schools because the prestigious private schools tend to cost significantly more than $9,500 a year, and the low-income students who are eligible for these vouchers are not able to afford anything else significant out of pocket. Distinguished schools such as Sidwell Friends and Washington International School only have one voucher student each.

Congress, which has jurisdiction over DC, passed the laws prescribing a voucher system to encourage poorer students to look beyond their neighborhood schools.  A Department of Education report showed that, in general, those who are provided with a private school voucher had a significantly higher graduation rate than their peers at public schools, and were reported by their parents to be safer.

Senator Cruz believes his expansion of these voucher systems to include all DC residents will amplify the benefits that some have reported with the current low-income-only voucher system. When the bill was first introduced in February of last year, Cruz declared, “Not only does school choice give low-income children the same choices and opportunities that children from wealthy families have always had, it also improves public schools, making them stronger and more effective.”  

Critics point out that expanding the voucher system to include all students would mean taxpayer dollars paying for private schools for parents who can already afford it. Others contend that vouchers have not proven effective. The Department of Education report found no significant impacts on academic achievement or SAT reading and math scores for voucher recipients  when compared to their public school peers.

If the EFAA were to become DC law, it would be the first time taxpayer dollars could be used to fund education for any student at private schools. Most states that provide education savings accounts or school voucher programs designate only certain groups. Typically the disabled, children of military families, or foster children are eligible.

The main issue critics have identified with this provision –using public dollars for private schools– is that private schools face little governmental oversight, such as standardized tests, and can often fail to meet even basic educational standards. In fact, DC public schools that currently receive public funds are only obligated each year to take one standardized test of their choosing, and can continue to receive funds no matter how poorly they fare. It is not even required that these test results be made public.

The majority of the DC Council expressed opposition to the bill in a letter to House Republicans on March 7 of last year, stating that, “The [Education Savings Account] program and similar initiatives has not only failed to improve student’s academic performance, but worsened it, as found in a series of recent studies.”  They continued, “We strongly believe that financial resources should be invested in the current public school system, both public and public charter schools, rather than diverted to private schools.”

Herein lies the central argument of public school advocates against the implementation of school choice programs. Being forced to pay for each student not attending puts strain on the budget and provides less funding for the students at public schools.

At Wilson, this problem is particularly acute. The school has the lowest funds to pupil ratio of any DCPS high school, at $6,573 per student. Duke Ellington, which ranks first place, receives over $5,000 more per student at $11,828.

The greatest backlash to the EFAA came from DC’s non-voting representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton. Mark Meadows, Chair of the far-right Freedom Caucus, introduced the companion bill to Ted Cruz’s EFAA in the House. Norton blasted Meadows in a statement,  “My friend Representative Meadows apparently does not have enough going on with a looming government shutdown that he decided to go back to one of his favorite pastimes: abusing congressional authority to attack DC home rule and our local laws.”

This bill introduces the most extreme school choice program in the United States against the wishes of DC’s representatives in the DC Council, who urged House Republicans in the aforementioned letter to observe the District’s right to “the quintessentially local matter of education,”. As well as against the wishes of DC residents, whose opinion was not consulted on the matter. The Constitution provides Congress with jurisdiction over DC, which allows them to pass legislation concerning local matters, and to effectively block legislation proposed by the DC Council.

Regardless of the fierce opposition and and support that the “Educational Freedom Accounts Act” has elicited, it is unlikely that it will pass Congress. Republicans have slim unruly majorities in both the Senate and the House, and Democrats are united in their opposition to school choice programs.

Ted Cruz, a longtime political tactician, knows this. The Texas senator seems to be more interested in starting a conversation on school choice, which he dubbed, “the civil rights issue of our era,” than in actually passing this piece of legislation.