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House bill 610— what does it do?

Published 2.23.2017
Thursdays have become the day on which I choose to opine on education. This is the fifth entry in the series (and eventually I will stop counting the entries). The focus this week is House Bill 610. This presentation is really more of a backgrounder, as I am still learning about the law.

House Bill 610, titled the Choices in Education Act of 2017 is a very short bill, that basically block grants money to the states, and makes setting up a voucher system a condition to get the funds. It also repeals the Nutritional Act of 2012, which addressed the quality of food offered at public schools and specifically mandated that more fruits and vegetables be served. There is no companion bill in the Senate— or at least no companion bill has been introduced yet in the Senate. Here is the summary from the congress.gov site:

This bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and limits the authority of the Department of Education (ED) such that ED is authorized only to award block grants to qualified states.

The bill establishes an education voucher program, through which each state shall distribute block grant funds among local educational agencies (LEAs) based on the number of eligible children within each LEA's geographical area. From these amounts, each LEA shall: (1) distribute a portion of funds to parents who elect to enroll their child in a private school or to home-school their child, and (2) do so in a manner that ensures that such payments will be used for appropriate educational expenses.

To be eligible to receive a block grant, a state must: (1) comply with education voucher program requirements, and (2) make it lawful for parents of an eligible child to elect to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the state or to home-school their child.

No Hungry Kids Act

The bill repeals a specified rule that established certain nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs. (In general, the rule requires schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals; and meet children's nutritional needs within their caloric requirements.)

The actual law text isn't much longer. This is the law being repealed. Originally signed in 1965, it was modified (amended) and re-authorized numerous times though the years, most recently in 2015 and given the new title Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). No Child Left UntestedBehind (NCLB) was actually the same law modified under W Bush.

According to Wikipedia, the condition for granting waivers to the NCLB was adoption of the Common Core. So they didn’t threaten to withhold funds, they threatened to hold the states to the NCLB standards in terms of test scores. If the states adopted Common Core, they were exempt from NCLB benchmarks. ESSA was a bipartisan bill with Senators Lamar Alexander (Republican) and Patty Murray (Democrat).

There are a host of issues this very short bill does not address that are addressed in ESSA. ESSA covers programs for struggling learners, AP (advanced placement) classes, English-as-a-Second-Language classes, classes for minorities such as Native Americans, Rural Education, Education for the Homeless, School Safety (Gun-Free schools) and more. House bill 610 makes no mention of children with special needs. Presumably the authors believe that all of those issues can be decided by each individual state. Children with special needs, if should be notes, are currently granted rights by other existing laws, but I'm not going to go through all that here.

Trump delayed implementation of new ESSA regulations, but DeVos wrote to the states and told them to go ahead and make their plans to meet the requirements of ESSA, but there might eventually be a new template. Which sounds like she told them to go ahead and spin your wheels, but don't be surprised if I tell you later on to tear up everything you've made. Our tax dollars at work…

DeVos is a big supporter of vouchers, and the teachers unions are big opponents. So where did the idea for vouchers originate? Per this New York Time article, Milton Friedman suggested them.

While many policy ideas have murky origins, vouchers emerged fully formed from a single, brilliant essay published in 1955 by Milton Friedman, the free-market godfather later to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics. Because “a stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens,” Mr. Friedman wrote, the government should pay for all children to go to school.

Friedman thought that government should pay for education, but not control or provide that education. Any problems in terms of quality would be addressed by market forces— parents would pull their kids from failing schools.

The rest of the article is run down of recent results from studies looking at the effectiveness of voucher programs in states that have them. And the results are not good, at least if you're a fan of vouchers. Results in Indiana were negative, but results in Louisiana were particularly bad.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

These poor results are in contrast to earlier studies that showed better results for voucher programs. However, if this is the direction the nation is to head down, then we should know what we're getting into.

Kids are not widgets, and there's nothing magical about private or charter schools. For that matter there's nothing magical about homeschooling (which is also mentioned in the bill, and homeschoolers would also receive voucher funds). Educating kids is not easy, and all kids do not learn the same. What works for one child will not work for another. That's the case in public schools, it's the case in private and charter schools or at home too.

I will continue to monitor this issue.

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