The Federal Government's Role in Education: School Vouchers?

Teacher unions, parents, small government advocates are critical constituencies for both Democrats and Republicans. How could Congress do anything but consider limiting the federal role in education?
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Some of my regular readers might remember a previous blog entitled "School Reform or Tuition Vouchers," in which I predicted that if Americans continued to see their public schools as failing their children, they would advocate for government-financed vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools chosen by parents.

Well, that time is quickly approaching.

And, if we thought the debate regarding the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, was acrimonious, we haven't seen anything yet!

The upcoming battleground is the larger issue of education--what role should the federal government play versus the states. Historically, education has been a local matter; however, the federal government has found a persuasive way to become involved, namely, by offering large amounts of money to those states and school districts which implement federal initiatives. As always, money is a great motivator.

The fed's role increased markedly beginning in the late 1980s as business and political leaders became concerned regarding the United States' economy falling behind that of other nations; at that time it was Japan. The role of the federal government increased even more in the 1990s as the debate focused upon accountability through standardized student testing--should there be national tests or state tests? That question was resolved in favor of individual state testing, then.

The Bush-era 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law propelled the debate back into center stage. Both political parties joined in passing NCLB requiring yearly testing in mathematics and language arts in grades three through eight, setting the year 2014 as the target for all students having reached proficiency in these two subject areas, and creating stiff penalties for those schools that fail to do so.

Ten years later, as the debate regarding larger or smaller federal government involvement pervaded national elections--the economy, health care, Medicaid, among others--became the defining issue between Republicans and Democrats, important constituencies of both parties began to question whether the federal government had become too involved in education.

Federal involvement in education has increased geometrically under President Obama as his Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan used 2009 anti-recession Congressionally-approved stimulus money to fund state and local school district grant programs that were focused upon student accountability through standardized testing and teacher evaluation based upon those student test results.

These strongly-pushed initiatives resulted in major push-backs by teacher unions who opposed having teacher evaluations based upon student test scores, and parents and educators who asserted that standardized testing had resulted in the narrowing of curriculum and too much time being spent on test preparation.

The most recent rallying cry for those opposed to federal involvement in education has been the Common Core standards for mathematics and language arts. Though not developed by the federal government, but adopted by 45 states, these common curricula objectives are seen as leading to a national curriculum. Some states are now reconsidering their participation.

Teacher unions, parents, small government advocates are critical constituencies for both Democrats and Republicans. How could Congress do anything but consider limiting the federal role in education?

Earlier this month, both parties in the Senate and the House Republicans released their bills which would reauthorize funding for elementary and secondary education by modifying the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

The political winds point to moving decision-making to the individual states regarding how much testing should occur, what should be included in the tests, should the newly-developed Common Core standard be implemented nationally, how teachers should be evaluated, and what are the consequences for those schools with large numbers of failing students.

However acrimonious the debates become regarding these reauthorization questions, nothing will compare to the ensuing debate regarding the federal government providing money to be used by parents to choose their own public school or to enroll their children in private schools, programs commonly entitled "school vouchers," a provision in the Republican bill.

School vouchers, though rare 10 years ago, are now law in 17 states, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school vouchers are constitutional since public money would be going to parents and not to private or religious elementary and secondary schools under the so-called "child benefit theory."

There are many arguments against school vouchers, especially that de facto segregation occurs when parents choose to attend nonpublic schools with children like their own.

However, it's extremely difficult to tell parents whose children are attending failing schools that their kids must remain there and continue to fail.

The school voucher movement never had a better opportunity to become federal law.

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