Thursday, July 18, 2013

School Choice and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Cantor 61-BcChb.Em.91I can't seem to practice what I preach.  After warning you off of daily updates on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in favor of the Department of Education waivers, I am now giving you my own update.  It is not, however, because I believe the competing bills will go anywhere, but because I believe the bills say something about education values and agendas. 

Eric Cantor has introduced an amendment that would allow low-income students to take their Title I dollars to their public school of choice, which includes both charters and traditional public schools.  Alyson Klien of Ed Week reports: "Folks had originally expected Cantor to introduce an amendment that would allow parents to take their Title I dollars to a private school, as well as a traditional public school or charter. But that idea met with big resistance from some moderate members of the House Republican caucus, advocates say. And two Republican lawmakers—Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah and Matt Salmon of Arizona—have introduced amendments that would allow students to bring their Title I dollars to private schools. Will Cantor's public school choice amendment be sufficient to help the bill garner support from conservatives? Stay tuned."

The free flow of Title I dollars to private schools is an attack on public schools.  Conservatives argue that such a move just gives poor kids the same option as wealthy kids.  But even with a voucher or Title I portability, poor kids will not have the same option as wealthy kids.  Voucher program data consistently shows that most of these students end up in religious schools.  They end up there not because they want a religious education, but because those are the only private schools willing to take them at a reduced rate.  This is not to criticize religious schools, but to point out this is not really about giving poor kids options.  Instead, it is either about pushing a religious agenda or intentionally moving federal money out of the public system and into the private system.  The latter motivation, which seems like the strongest of the two motivations, represents lost faith in public schools and/or an attempt to undermine them.

I find it heartening that enough moderate republicans balked at this idea that Eric Cantor is moderating his choice position.  I find it disheartening that two other republicans have stepped up to take Cantor's place and will introduce similar legislation anyway.  Hopefully, they will remain on the margins.  Regardless, the other question is whether Cantor's moderated position really is moderate.  Is easing the move of federal money out of traditional public schools into charter schools one that represents a commitment to public schools, or is it just the first step toward the grand initial plan of moving money to private schools?

To be clear, the concept of funding portability is an appealing one to almost all civil rights advocates.  NCLB included a transfer provision that many thought would help integrate and diversify schools, but it didn't work because the receiving schools outside of the school district were not obligated to accept transferring students.  If Cantor's provision creates a greater incentive for suburburban schools, for instance, to enroll urban students, it could be an important move for integration and diversity advocates.  It is hard for civil rights advocates to not be skeptical of anything that Cantor might introduce, but school choice is the one area where conservatives and civil rights advocates have been able to find common ground.  I'll keep my fingers crossed.

For more on the story, see here and here.


Charters and Vouchers, ESEA/NCLB, Federal policy | Permalink


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