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"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Will the Nation’s Capital Have Universal School Choice?

By Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D. | March 1, 2016  National Center for Policy Analysis Education Views

Recently U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced the Educational Freedom Accounts Act (S. 2455), creating a universal school choice program in Washington, D.C. for every public school student including those enrolled in public charter schools. 

Companion legislation (H.R. 4426) has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). 

Modeled after the recently passed Nevada’s Education Savings Account (ESA) law, the bill allows the amount normally spent per pupil in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to be placed in a parent-controlled account.  The funds can be used for tuition, fees, tutoring, curricula, and other qualifying expenses to customize the child’s education. 

An overarching concern of many is that federal strings will be tied to the ESA funds resulting in changing the character of the private school and creating the same problems from which the public is fleeing.

However, if the bill is passed as written, the education provider or program can continue to enforce its own admission requirements and accept only those students deemed best qualified to attend the school.  The exception is that discrimination cannot be based on race, color, national origin, or sex, although single sex schools, classes, and activities will be permitted.  Citing the First Amendment, the bill protects the right of religious schools from being required to make changes including:  

  • their teaching mission;
  • removal of religious symbols or scriptures;
  • removal of religious terms in school name, mission statement, or board documents; or
  • the selection of board members on a religious basis.

Critically important is that the bill prohibits the federal government from controlling the school’s curriculum.

While there are some school choice options available now in the federal district with public charter schools and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, waiting lines are long and thousands of parents are seeking alternatives to the bottom ranked DCPS.

If the Educational Freedom Accounts Act bill is passed, DCPS stands to lose a substantial amount of money to parent-controlled, taxpayer-funded accounts.  According to fiscal year 2013 census, the amount spent on pupil instruction is $10,771 with an elementary/secondary enrollment of 44,179.  Should even 5,000 parents move their children out of traditional and public charter schools, D.C. public education would lose nearly $54 million dollars.  At a loss of 10,000 students, DCPS could face a staggering loss of almost $108 million dollars.

Central planning has not been successful for education in spite of massive taxpayer funding.  Free market competition in other areas, such as telecommunication, has brought far better services, greater options, and lower pricing.

Free market competition in education also will bring far better options.  Faced with loss of funding that can cripple the system, DCPS has its own “choice” – making significant changes to provide a high quality of education for D.C. children. 

The other choice is whether lawmakers will pass the bill to restore the right of D.C. parents to educate their children as they wish.

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