Virtually any D.C. student would be able to attend private school on the taxpayer’s dime under legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) — a proposal that would mark the most radical expansion of school choice in the nation.
Under the proposal, called the Educational Freedom Accounts Act, the District would be forced to give public money directly to parents who opt out of public schools. Like vouchers, the funds could be used at private schools. But they could also be used for other educational expenses, including home-schooling materials and private tutoring. Families would receive at least 90 percent of what the District allocates through its per-student funding formula, which was about $9,500 in 2015.
Cruz and Meadows introduced similar bills last year, but neither received a hearing, and the measures are unlikely to pass this year, according to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting representative. When Cruz introduced his measure last year, he called school choice “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 last year.
Though the bills are unlikely to pass, they still raised Norton’s ire, who called them a naked attempt by members of Congress to burnish their records while undercutting the city’s autonomy.
“These are fodder for people to show back home that their ideology is alive and kicking even if they can’t pass bills,” Norton said.
Neither Meadows nor Cruz returned calls seeking comments.
Congress has broad authority to intervene in the District’s law-making and has in the past attempted to halt implementation of its assisted suicide law and marijuana legalization.
Five other states have education savings account programs but all are restricted to certain groups of students, such as students with disabilities, or the children of military families. If the Cruz-Meadows measure becomes law, the District’s program would be the first to allow any K-12 student to enroll in private school with public money. (Nevada introduced an education savings account program in 2015 that would have been open to any child, but it was struck down by the courts.)
Some school choice backers favor giving parents public dollars to use as they see fit, arguing that families should be able to choose the school that best serves their children’s needs. But public school advocates say such initiatives deplete education budgets, and point out that taxpayer dollars would flow into private schools that are subject to scant oversight.
The District already has one of the most robust school choice programs in the country: Nearly half of children attend charter schools, and parents have an array of magnet school options. Some 1,100 children from low-income families receive vouchers to attend private schools through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded voucher program in the nation. It gives eligible families money to spend on tuition at private schools.
A study released earlier this year by the federal Education Department’s research arm showed that D.C. children who received private school vouchers saw their test scores drop within a year of entering the program. At the time, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she still backed D.C.’s voucher program, pointing out that the vouchers were popular among families using them.
About one in six students who attended school in the District went to a private school in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the most recent estimate, and many of those students would automatically be eligible for the education savings account, even if their parents could already afford tuition.
Norton acknowledged that the District’s public school system has shortcomings: Test scores and graduation rates have improved, but only about one-third of students rated college- and career-ready on standardized exams last school year. But directing taxpayer dollars from public schools into private ones is not the solution, she said.
“I’m here to tell Congress to keep its hand off the D.C. public schools,” Norton said. “They don’t know what to do with them.”