Feds Should Look Inward to Expand School Choice

Feds Should Look Inward to Expand School Choice
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In a question-and-answer session at a recent White House-staged CEO business town hall, President Donald Trump once again expressed his belief in local control of education. “We can’t be managing education from Washington,” Trump asserted.

With all due respect to the president, maybe “we” can—although the “we” may not be the one that was originally intended.

While touting localism, you see, Trump also has in mind a grand plan devised in Washington, D.C.: the creation of a $250 million national program to help disadvantaged children choose private schools.

Even many advocates of parental choice who are thrilled that a president is finally embracing their cause are deeply concerned federal school vouchers would draw Washington even deeper into the micromanagement of elementary and secondary education. Some intellectual leaders of the school-choice movement expressed their concerns at a recent Heritage Foundation conference.

Boiled down, the reason for the anxiety is simple: Where federal dollars go, federal controls always follow. Count on it. Over time, federal regulations just expand like toadstools after a hard spring rain.

Who would have thought when President Lyndon Johnson earmarked federal dollars as compensatory aid for disadvantaged children back in 1965—under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—George W. Bush’s administration would be requiring localities under an ESEA-renamed No Child Left Behind law to test children annually and rate their schools on the results? Or that the Obama administration would be using federal grants and regulations under a misnamed “Race to the Top” grant program to push the Common Core State Standards on states? (So baked into federal laws and regulations are those standards now that Trump is still vowing to end Common Core, without saying exactly how he will do it.)

If the Trump administration managed to win congressional approval for a federal voucher program, it might tread lightly in requiring private schools accepting voucher students to follow prescribed policies for admissions, hiring and firing, curriculum and all the rest. However, because political pendulums swing and career bureaucrats tend to have their own agendas, federal controls surely would grow over time, thus undercutting the independence of participating private schools and their patrons.

First principles should apply: The Constitution confers no authority to the federal government over educational systems run by states and localities, much less private schools. School choice is spreading steadily, state by state, without federal intervention. More than half of the states now aid families in exercising various forms of private-school choice.

All school choice should be local. That was one message implicit in the Utah State Legislature’s recent adoption of a resolution calling for the restoration of federalism and slapping down federal overreach into education. Adopted 60 to 14 by the House and 20 to 1 by the Senate, the measure calls for the dissolution of the U.S. Education Department, repeal of all ESEA mandates and a halt to expansive interpretations of federal regulations that harm education “at all levels.” If many more states began taking such a stand, perhaps the powers that be in Washington, DC would take notice.

That said, some school choice can be federally led. Washington, D.C. is legitimately the school board and superintendent for three significant constituencies: (1) children of U.S. military personnel, (2) residents of the District of Columbia, (3) tribal children schooled under Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) auspices.

Those three spheres of federal influence could be the ideal places for the Trump administration to further demonstrate the transformative power of school choice while letting states and localities decide whether to adopt or expand their own programs.

Senator Tim Scott, who is becoming one of the leading congressional advocates for parental choice, has introduced legislation supporting innovative choice in two of the three federal realms. It would create a Department of Defense pilot project on at least five military bases, enabling military families to receive scholarships ranging from $8,000 per elementary-school child to $12,000 per high-school student.

Moreover, the Scott initiative would strengthen the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was enacted on a bipartisan basis by Congress in 2004. Even though voucher students have graduated high school at significantly high rates than their peers who remained in Washington, D.C. public schools, former President Barack Obama did the bidding of teacher unions in trying for eight years to terminate this federal voucher program. Scott’s legislation to preserve and bolster it could give the Trump administration an opening to make Washington, D.C., which also has some of the best charter schools in the country, a shining example for the nation of the power of education freedom.

Meanwhile, Senator John McCain is championing an initiative that would enable tribal children currently enrolled in woeful BIE schools to benefit from federal funds going into education savings accounts (ESAs) in states where that choice program is in effect. ESAs enable parents to select from a wide range of educational services or options to customize their children’s schooling.

This is not to suggest the Trump administration’s reserving its choice activism to federal enclaves would be controversy-free, but at least any fussing would be within the federal “family” instead of in communities and homes that should able to shape education to individual needs, free of federal interference.

Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

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