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3/15/17

A Modest Proposal

  HB 610 was introduced in the House of Representatives on January 23 2017 by Representative King of Iowa and Representatives Harris and Franks of Arizona.  The bill is a study in brevity by current standards (10 pages in its entirety compared to the 2400 pages of the Affordable Care Act or NCLB legislation of over 1.000 pages) and in its present form is a legislative haiku that says a lot in comparatively few words.
    The bill’s purpose is to “distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.”
    You could probably hear public school parents, teachers and students cheering when they find out about the second part.  Nobody but a dyed in the wool hard core Democrat whose kids don’t go to public school likes school lunches in their current state of culinary purgatory, and the nuts and twigs kids are presently served and do not eat are universally despised by those expected to eat them.  The first part is a little more problematic.
    Section 102 of the bill (whose short title is the “Choices in Education Act of 2017” states a) “the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 is repealed and b) “the authority of the Secretary under this title is limited to evaluating State applications under section 104 and making payments to the States under section 103.  The Secretary shall not impose any further requirements on States with respect to elementary and secondary education beyond the retirements of this title.”
 My goodness!  In one fell swoop the US Department of Education is limited to distributing Federal educational funds to states in the form of vouchers to states on a per student basis according to the number of eligible students in that state in public, private and home-school settings. After Arne Duncan and the RTTT debacle that in itself is a breath of fresh air. States complete an application that says they will distribute the Federal dollars received to local educational agencies or to parents of eligible students to use for tuition for public, private or home-school students “in a manner that promotes competition and choices in education.” So the Secretary’s only jobs will be to determine the number of eligible students in each state in a given year and divide the money by how many states get a block grant according to whether or not they meet the criteria in Section 105.  The money goes directly to the schools where the child is enrolled OR goes to the parents of homeschoolers and is considered “assistance.”  One percent of the money may be reserved by LEA’s for administrative costs.
    Alrighty then. Let’s skip over the details about why we send money to Washington DC to be sent back to the states and how parents will use or not use this money for the education of their children and tax credits and how Mrs. Devos or any future Secretary of Education will determine which state applications are approved and which are not and ask a couple of burning questions.
    First, though, let’s look at the money.  The USDOE had a budget of about $70.7 billion in 2016.  That’s about 3% of the total US budget and includes both discretionary and mandatory dollars.  The USDOE has maintained a disproportionate degree of control over state education compared to the amount of money they distribute to states since 1965. The Federal money provided to Georgia for education in 2014 was about $1.1 billion, or close to 8% of the state’s educational budget.  These funds were in the form of Title I (Financial assistance to LEA’s for the education of low income families; Title II (School library resources, textbooks and instructional material); Title III (supplementary educational centers and services; Title  IV (Educational research and training); Title V (Grants to strengthen state DOE’s) and Title VI (General provisions).  Titles III-VI become state responsibilities and I and II are modified under the bill.
   The GADOE Spring 2016 FTE for public school students was 1,749,316 and the 790 private schools in GA totaled 146,525 students. The number of homeschooled students is estimated by the Coalition of Responsible Home Education as between 54,192 and 72,256 students.  Just for today let’s round those number and say 1,750,000 public school students, 150,000 private school students and 70,000 homeschoolers for a total of 1,970,00 students K-12 in Georgia.  Title I eligibility is a function of parent income, and Georgia’s Free and Reduced Lunch percentages are commensurate with the percentage of students qualifying for Title I status.  FRL percentages in Georgia in the October 2016 FTE counts were 61.72%, so multiplying 1,970,000 times 61.72% (figuring the same percentage of students for public, private and homeschool students -it won’t be, but let’s not quibble about a few million dollars here or there) equals 1,215,884 students.  Let’s round that up to 1,216,000 students. Using the long division I learned in public school before Common Core, that comes to $1.1 billion divided by 1,216,000 equals somewhere in the neighborhood of $904 and change per student.  Let’s subtract some for administrative costs and so forth, and say we’re talking about $850 per student in voucher money. So now we arrive at the questions.
    Will the students using this money for any school - public, private or homeschool - in Georgia be subject to the testing regimen currently required in public schools?  Will private schools accepting this money as tuition be required to abide by Federal guidelines under IDEA?  Will private schools accept this money from students if one or both of those strings are attached? I’m pretty sure I know the answers to those questions before I even asked.  If testing and political “accountability” were designed to improve education and, in fact, did improve education don’t you think private schools would already have adopted the idea? Of course they would, and would be requiring standardized testing in every grade in order to ensure “accountability” for their parents.  But they don’t. Not one. Zero. Nada.  I’m also guessing most private schools wouldn’t think $900 in a partial tuition payment (many charge in the neighborhood of $10,000 per student per year in tuition) would be worth ANY strings attached.
    Neither do I believe public schools would be loath to compete with private schools for students or tuition dollars IF the playing field was leveled and testing and IDEA guidelines were in place for all students that brought their vouchers with them.  Public schools now take EVERY student that walks through their doors, included those with little or no English skills, mild, moderate or severe physical or mental disabilities and no matter their level (or dearth) of prior schooling and achievement.  They also test their students to death in the name of accountabilism with a testing regimen designed to suck the joy out of school and teaching for political purposes and not to improve instruction.  Despite those obstacles and primarily because of the heroic work of teachers that succeed in spite of the system and not because of it, the graduation rate last school year was 79.2% for Georgia public schools.  Most private schools have an acceptance rate of about 85% (depending on the school), unanimously do NOT elect to participate in the state and local testing opportunities and have a graduation rate at or above 90%.  They also advertise smaller classes (20 or less) than public schools can offer.  Does it make you wonder why politicians fail to hold up that particular model when talking about “reforming” public schools? Perhaps the Georgia legislature should follow the lead of the US Congress and withdraw completely from the phony standardized student testing business. The model seems to work well for private schools, doesn’t it?
    So, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the bill passes and public and private schools do compete with each other for students and Federal money.  I believe that good private schools have their place and are an important part of the educational process for a lot of kids, but if they are going to accept Federal or state dollars (public money) for tuition they should play by the same rules that public schools do.  Unless, of course, the people that make the rules for public schools- you know, the same ones that already send their kids to private schools - don’t want a level playing field.  I’m guessing that $850 and change per eligible student in money from the Feds is not nearly enough incentive to entice a private school to embrace either testing or IDEA, and I’m betting not one politician is willing to propose that if no testing and smaller class size works for private schools maybe the same things would work for public schools. Maybe this could even be a model for those “failing” schools Governor Deal is so desperate to help.  That might just be my highly developed sense of cynicism at work, or it might just be an accurate assessment of political intentions.  Let the posturing begin!
    

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