House Bill 610 (working title; Choices in Education Act) has been introduced into Congress. It has not cleared a committee, there have been no votes taken, and no amendments offered. But, now is the time for the public to learn about what the bill will change if it becomes law. There is still time for us to contact congressional representatives and let our thoughts on this bill ring out. 

House Bill 610 is the beginning of federal action to severely cripple public schools with an eye on eliminating them completely. The Department of Education will become superfluous along the way. Some, including Mr. Trump’s political brain, Steve Bannon, argue that the federal government has no business being involved with education. Reasoning: Education is not mentioned in the Constitution, and we all know that anything not mentioned is the property of the states. True, but many of the issues dealt with in this bill are not strictly education issues, they are equal rights issues that are squarely in the fed’s purview. 

The first action taken by HB-610 is the entire repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Every Student Succeeds Act. Gone from schools will be the responsibility to fairly deal with most anyone who is outside the norms of regular education. There will be no requirements that schools provide for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or any other programs for gifted learners. No longer will career and technical instruction need to be offered, equal treatment of women and girls programs can be on the chopping block, school safety and gun related incidents will no longer have to be reported, school lunches will no longer be required to contain healthy food group choices, capturing student data for school accountability will be eliminated, there will be no mention of equal access or opportunity for students with disabilities, and discrimination and harassment (bullying) issues will no longer be necessary to report or monitor. The 1965 act is broad and inclusive. It deals with a wide range of educational needs presented by subgroups in schools. Over the last 50 years the act has served challenged students well and its elimination could bring back a lot of head turning away from nonstandard students.  

None of these programs or organizational systems will have to go away, but as with all laws, they weren’t being properly administered before the 1965 law was enacted. There is no reason for us to believe that they will remain after accountability is lifted. HB-610 cuts a lot of money out of the school budgets and any program difficult to fund will be fodder for extinction.  

The second part of HB-610 will be to make funding for schools reliant on vouchers. Federal money will be allocated to qualifying states that meet the school choice demands of the bill. States will need to apply and be judged acceptable and those that do not qualify or do not comply with the demands of the bill will be cut out of federal monies. Any excesses will be used to pay down the federal deficit–taking even more money away from schools and students.  

The bill makes use of the term “eligible students/children” fully 30 times in the body of the document which is about as long as this column. Eligible students are those who will qualify for a voucher. It defines “eligible students/children” as “a child 5-17 (years-old) inclusive.” 

Okay. But, be aware that at any time the definition of “eligible child” could be easily changed to limit access to education to any given subgroup of kids deemed counterproductive to the end goals of this bill. Why include the adjective “eligible” if all students are supposed to be included? Just call them “children” or “students” to remove all ambiguity. A simple amendment to the bill can change the definition of “eligible children” to something much more restrictive than all students currently included on today’s public and private education rosters. This is an area of the bill that requires acute vigilance by concerned citizens. 

One aspect of public education that isn’t often discussed is the issue of school boards. Citizen school boards, made up of elected officials, run public schools. The public has an avenue to give and get information about how their taxes are spent. Private schools receiving vouchers from public tax dollars and many charter schools have no such boards and the people with the most influence are those with the most money to give for endowments. This creates an oligarchy at best and likely a dictatorship ruling private and some charter schools being publically funded. 

Lastly, there is just no conclusive evidence that any of the facets of educational choice advocated by HB-610; private, charter, home, magnet, or public schooling, renders a superior education over the others to their students. There are individual examples of exemplary schools in each category and examples of failing schools in each as well. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.  

We need to think long and hard before taking on the equality and access challenges presented by moving to a voucher system of paying for our children’s education–spreading already sparse dollars even more thinly. When we pick winners and losers in schools, we are also picking winners and losers among our kids.  

Part II of this column will appear tomorrow with clarifications about what choices we have.