Legislation introduced in both chambers of Congress would force Washington, D.C. to use local taxpayer money to fund a school voucher program that many city officials have long said they oppose.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading Republican presidential contender, introduced the Educational Freedoms Account Act, which would require D.C. public schools to give away taxpayer dollars to families that want to send their children to private schools. The bill would make D.C. give those families an amount close to what the school system would allocate for each student attending a public school, which was about $9,500 per student last year.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced a companion bill in the House this week.
“School choice is the civil rights issue of our era. Each and every child has the right to access a quality education,” Cruz said in a news release. “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.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) authored a bill last year that would extend the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program — the nation’s only federally funded, private school voucher program for K-12 students — through 2021. That legislation is still pending Senate approval.
Both voucher programs are based on the idea that students of all incomes should have the opportunity to opt out of the public school system. The difference is that Boehner’s program uses federal funds, while Cruz’s would impel the District to use its own local money for the program. In the 2014-2015 school year, 1,442 students used vouchers to pay tuition at 47 private schools in the District, with 80 percent of those students using the vouchers for religious schools.
“Who is Ted Cruz to tell the D.C. government how to spend their own taxpayer funds on education, a great priority in this city?,” D.C. Del Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote in a statement. “It is one thing for the federal government to meddle with D.C.’s local affairs and set up a private school voucher program with federal funds; it is quite another to force a local jurisdiction to use its own finite funds to pay for an unaccountable voucher program, taking away funding from our traditional public schools and public charter schools”
A Washington Post investigation in 2012 found that quality controls for schools accepting the vouchers in D.C. were lacking. Hundreds of D.C. students were using their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.
Cruz has a history of getting involved in local D.C. affairs. In 2015, he tried to get Congress to overturn a D.C. law regarding discrimination over reproductive health decisions, and another to prevent religiously affiliated colleges in the District from having to fund gay and lesbian student groups.
This latest legislation would require the city to create educational savings accounts for eligible children who want to use the voucher program, so that parents can take that money to a school of their choosing. The income level of that child’s family would determine how much money is put into that savings account: A family with an income of not more than 185 percent of the poverty level, for example, would receive 90 percent of the funds that would otherwise be allocated by the city’s public school system for the child.
Nevada has a similar education savings account program; parents there can request an education savings account for their child, with the state depositing a percentage of what it would otherwise allocate for the child’s public education.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson declined to comment on the legislation. At-large Councilmember David Grosso, who chairs the council’s education committee, said that the idea of Cruz forcing the District to divert local funds to this voucher program is “is ridiculous and insulting to the residents of the District of Columbia.” He has been outspoken about federally mandated voucher programs in the past, arguing that the federal government should not expand spending public money on private schools.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office appeared to view Cruz’s legislation as an overreach of his role as a U.S. senator.
“I thought Senator Cruz was running for president, not a seat on the D.C. Council,” spokesman Michael Czin said.