Calling school choice the best route out of poverty, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took aim at New York City’s new mayor on Wednesday for his cooler stance toward public charter schools and warned that Republicans may hold congressional hearings on the education policies of Democrat Bill de Blasio’s administration.
In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Cantor (R-Va.) said that New York made great progress in offering choice to students under former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who grew the number of public charter schools from seven to 123 in 12 years.
Public charter schools are financed with tax money but are independently run, and in most cases, teachers are not unionized.
Bloomberg allowed charter schools to co-locate in underused city schools, which relieved charters from the cost of finding space in New York’s overheated real estate market. But the cohabitation created tension with traditional schools, some of which were squeezed out of their gyms and classrooms as adjoining charters grew.
De Blasio, who campaigned on the idea of improving all schools, wants to halt the co-location of charters. He said he might also charge rent to charters that receive significant funding from foundations and private interests.
“This move could devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market like New York City,” Cantor said during his remarks at Brookings. “Just think of how many families will have their choices taken away if Mayor de Blasio pursues these policies.”
He added, “Our committees in the House will remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure that no one, no one from the government, stands in the schoolhouse door between any child and a good education.”
Megan Whittemore, Cantor’s press secretary, said that although the congressman believes education decisions are best left to local officials, he has no qualms about challenging New York City policies if he thinks they threaten school choice. “There should be more choices for students and parents,” she said. “But if there are politicians who are going to try to stop that, we would look into that.”
After learning about Cantor’s remarks, de Blasio returned fire.
“The Republican agenda in Washington doesn’t even scratch the surface of the inequities facing more than a million children in our public schools,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “It’s a dangerous philosophy that turns its back on public education — and it has failed many times before. What public school parents want — and I know because I’m one of them — are real investments that lift up all our kids. That will take big, bold, progressive ideas. And that’s exactly what the people of New York City just voted for.”
On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Cantor was among several high-profile lawmakers raising a GOP voice in the national discourse around poverty and policy. And the long-distance exchange with New York’s new mayor highlighted differences between conservatives and progressives around public education.
Cantor said Wednesday that he wants more “school choice” — allowing parents to pull students from weak public schools and enroll them in a better traditional, charter or private school, with tuition ideally paid with federal money. That is an emerging theme among Republicans and conservatives, who plan to push legislation on the state level this year.
Cantor began touting “school choice” last year, visiting public charter schools and parochial schools nationwide attended by low-income students who had received vouchers or state tax money to help cover tuition.
“America is in the midst of an education revolution,” Cantor said at Brookings, “with a shift toward more choice for families.” Five decades of investment and effort by the federal government to improve public education has not worked, he said, and students need an escape hatch from substandard schools.
“For many families, living in poverty spans generations,” Cantor said. “Parents and grandparents struggled to realize the American dream. School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty, and we must act fast before it is too late for too many.”
Cantor criticized the government’s approach to education reform as “too slow, too sporadic, and too ineffective. And while we wait, we are losing generations of kids.”
The vast majority of U.S. students — 90 percent — attend public schools. Of that group, about 5 percent attend charter schools.
On Wednesday, Brookings released a study that ranked the quality of school choice in about 100 school districts. New Orleans schools topped the list, followed by New York City. Washington, D.C., was seventh.
Cantor took President Obama to task during his speech — for Obama’s opposition to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the only federally funded voucher program. The congressman said there is an “assault” on school choice in the District of Columbia.Since Congress created the program in 2004, the government has poured about $152 million into it, in which about 5,000 students have received vouchers to attend private schools in the District. The majority of those students attend Catholic schools, and the vouchers do not cover tuition at many of the city’s elite private schools.
The execution of the voucher program has been rocky, with inadequate safeguards over the millions of dollars in federal funding, insufficient information for parents and a student database that is riddled with incomplete information, according to the Government Accountability Office. A Washington Post investigation last year found that the 52 D.C. private schools approved to participate in the voucher program are subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate academic experiences.
During his remarks, Cantor promoted another idea that has been a favorite of Republicans dating to President Ronald Reagan: that federal money sent to high-poverty schools be allowed to follow the student if he or she moves to another school, regardless of whether it’s a private, charter or low-poverty school.
This idea of a “backpack” of federal funding that would follow such a student is part of an education bill that House Republicans passed in July, without any Democratic support and with 12 Republicans voting against it. The Student Success Act would give states and school districts more control over spending federal money and remove federal requirements that states set goals for student achievement.
Critics of the backpack idea, including the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association and teachers unions, say that Cantor’s plan could move federal funding from high-poverty to low-poverty schools. That would leave the high-poverty schools with the same operational costs but less money.
Obama has threatened to veto the House bill. Democrats on the Senate education committee passed their own version of an education bill last year without the “backpack” amendment. But the full Senate has not voted on the measure, and it is unclear whether it will.