Bill Knight column for Thurs, Fri, or Sat., April 27, 28 or 29
Plus, the bill – House Resolution 610, “The Choices in Education Act 2017” – comes at a time when the White House seeks a 13.5-percent cut in Education – $9.2 billion.
In Illinois, school boards already try to cope with late or insufficient payments from the state. But apart from funding issues in Springfield, schools’ managers and workers, parents and communities are facing a bill that would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESSA) and limit the Department of Education to just awarding block grants to states. Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the measure was introduced in January and would use block grants to underwrite households seeking to enroll children in private schools or to home-school them. It also repeals nutrition standards for school meal programs.
By funding school vouchers for children ages 5-17, the bill could start de-funding public schools. And eliminating ESSA could abolish programs for rural education, struggling learners, Advanced-Placement classes, special-needs students and more.
Illinois’ statewide lobby for school administrators opposes the bill.
"HR610 would change the landscape of public education, drive public funds to private sources, and eliminate existing grant dollars,” said Sara Boucek, associate director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA). “Public education is the very cornerstone of our country’s freedom and democracy. We do support and believe in local control, but not at the expense of defunding public education or eliminating current crucial funding sources.”
One of two major unions representing those on the other side of the bargaining table finds common cause on this issue. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA), said, “President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are doubling down on failed policies like voucher schemes that steal taxpayer dollars from public schools to fund private and for-profit schools – all at the expense of students. What’s also troubling is that vouchers undermine accountability to parents and taxpayers. Private and for-profit schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers have almost complete autonomy on how they operate. They can pick and choose which students they want and which students they’ll turn away. These schools don’t have to follow academic standards, don’t have to hire qualified teachers, and don’t have to disclose financial decisions to the public.”
In Central Illinois, Farmington school superintendent John Asplund said, “[Education’s] Title funds have been used by public schools to target assistance to children who need extra assistance, primarily in reading and math, as these skills are so essential for a person's success throughout their life. By taking these funds away from schools, needy students will almost certainly be harmed.
“This bill is an attempt to divert federal funds to private schools, and it appears to be a giveaway to parents of means that already send their children to private schools,” he added.
Proponents of the bill (and vouchers) stress choice. However, the bill doesn’t address areas without private schools – without choices. Also, money used to create vouchers would come from the same funds allocated to public schools, yet federal spending wouldn’t increase, so there would be less overall financial support – especially for rural-area and low-income schools. So this new choice for some would come at the expense of others.
Asplund’s concerns are practical.
“If a parent wishes to transfer their child to a new school, how is transportation to be arranged?” he asked. “Does a school have to accept that child? What if the parent decides they no longer wish to send their child to that school, where do the funds go? If a child transfers, will that school provide the extra support that the previous school provided? By accepting these public funds, are private schools then obligated to comply with federal special-education laws?
“If these federal funds follow the child, how much does each child get to transfer schools?” he continued. “Let's say it is somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 per child. Private school tuition is very often much more expensive than this. Where does the rest of the money come from?”
Plus, communities’ needs won’t vanish under HR610, Asplund added.
“Block grants are typically championed by those who do not believe that dollars should be targeted for low-income families,” he said. “Whether you agree with this concept or not, I think it is important to remember that low-income families will still be in need. If these funds aren't directed to their children and are instead spread out for all families, are we not supporting a system that will further separate the Haves from the Have Nots?”
[PICTURED: David Fitzsimmons editorial cartoon from the Arizona Daily Star.]