In January, House Bill 610 (HR 610) or the ‘‘Choices in Education Act of 2017’’ was introduced in the U.S. Congress which, if passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, would repeal The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 6301 et seq.). The ESEA was recently amended and renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that was signed into law in 2015.
In a nut shell, this means the funds, which have been used since 1965 to serve low-income students and to provide federal grants for textbooks and library books, funding for special education centers and scholarships for low-income college students will be distributed for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for parents of students to choose where they wish their child to be educated. The bill also would repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools. As this proposed law currently stands, there is no mention of educational services to children with special needs.
The ESEA is the primary source of federal aid to K-12 education. Title I-A is the largest program in the ESSA, funded at $14.9 billion for FY2016. It is designed to provide supplementary educational and related services to students attending p-12 schools with relatively high concentrations of students from low-income families. For states to receive the allocation of ESSA funding, which is determined by the U.S. Department of Education based on student eligibility, each state must submit a plan detailing how funds will be spent and then, upon approval, funds will be disbursed. HR 610 will change the funding formula as well as the process for states to receive funds. This new bill only defines how funding will be determined and offers no accountability requirement for what the funding will yield.
In states such as Mississippi, school choice may not be the answer for all children in every community to get the education their parents seek. For example, children whose parents wish for them to attend another school located 50 miles away may have the responsibility of transporting their child to their school of choice. According to HR 610, the plan submitted by the state to receive the re-purposed ESSA funding will provide for children ages 5-17 to attend any type of school, including home school. However, there is no statement related to accountability of schools “of choice,” including home schools, for a standard related to student outcome.
For parents who choose for their children to attend a private school, they will receive a voucher to offset their personal cost and, “The amount of any payment under this section shall not be treated as income of the child or his or her parents for purposes of Federal tax laws or for determining eligibility for any other Federal program.” (Lines 20-24) There is no mention of students meeting learning standards as set by the state.
In Mississippi, we have clusters of counties where the local tax base is low and school funding is dependent in large measure on state allocations. The Federal share in education often makes the difference in the quality and type of educational services provided even though it is relatively small in comparison to local and state funds required for schools to operate. If ESSA funds are removed on a per child basis from one district to another when parents choose to relocate their child, what will happen to the quality of education for the children whose parents are unable or unwilling to move their child?
Will the additional funding “schools of choice” receive as new children enroll actually meet the costs of providing the sought after educational opportunities? Or, will it weaken the overall educational program at the “choice” schools since funding may not be enough to cover additional faculty or course offerings?
We know that ESEA, and now ESSA funds have made the difference in children’s success in meeting the Literacy-Based Promotion Act. They have done this by allowing school districts to employ additional literacy coaches, reducing class sizes and providing pre-k classes.
Since our state leaders are having great difficulty determining how to develop a state funding formula for our schools, what kind of mess would our children be in if HR 610 (or something akin) is passes?
By Dr. Cathy Grace