Nan Austin

House vouchers bill would give students here no choices

In the incredibly complex world of federal education funding, a very simple idea is playing out in the House: Take all the federal funding that now goes to poor kids and English learners, and put it toward vouchers for everyone.

H.B. 610 would repeal what is now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), federal funding for education in place since 1965, and divide its $19.6 billion for 2017-18 between “qualified” states, based on number of school-age children. It also would end many nutritional requirements for school lunches.

The money now goes to programs of particular importance to the Central Valley. In Stanislaus County alone, school districts receive $46.6 million is ESSA funding, said Don Gatti of the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

This bill would take all of that funding away, with very little hope any vouchers would reach here.

“This is an opportunity to work for the well-being of our country by reclaiming our culture. This bill instills competition back into our K-12 schools. The result will be better, more effective schools, public or private,” author Rep. Steve King said in a statement when he introduced the bill Jan. 23.

King, an Iowa Republican, calls himself “a full-spectrum, constitutional conservative.” In the first weeks of this Congress, he has also introduced legislation to end prevailing-wage requirements, compulsory union fees and government translation services.

The bill may go nowhere. It has only three co-authors, all Republicans, and its referral to the House Education and the Workforce Committee has yet to get a hearing date. The Choices in Education Act of 2017 would, however, fulfill President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to pump $20 billion into voucher programs.

Under H.B. 610, states would get block grants to fund public, private or home schools chosen by parents. The funding must be doled out on a per-pupil basis, which would fly in the face of California’s weighted formula giving extra funding to schools to serve high-needs kids.

Fourteen states have implemented voucher programs, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit advocate for choice in schools. Interestingly, Iowa is not among them.

California is among the least likely states to qualify under the H.B. 610 plan, which has nowhere near the funding it needs to spread the program nationwide. If parents of every child in every state got a voucher, that $19.6 billion would divide out to about $341 per student per year – not much help toward private school tuition.

The federal government pays only about $1 out of every $12 spent on public schooling for 50.4 million kids – its real power lies in the long apron strings it ties to that $1. State testing and transparency, help for English learners and other mandates are all tied into that dollar.

Outside that system of mandates, an estimated 5.2 million students are in private schools, and about 1.8 million children are home-schooled, estimates the National Center for Education Statistics.

Are those kids getting a better or worse education? No one knows, is the bottom line. A 2016 Education Research Alliance study of a Louisiana voucher program found kids who transferred from public to private schools plummeted in math – an average of 24 percentage points in math – but gained back ground the second year. Did the private schools do a poor job, or could the public school kids just not keep up?

The scholarly answer will take years to sift out. The political answer may be as close as Facebook or the next presidential speech.

Which brings us back to wondering about the future of a long-shot bill that aims to shred federal requirements and take federal dollars for all poor children in order to fund an alternative for only some, and likely none in California.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin