House Republicans last month introduced H.R. 610, optimistically named the “Choices in Education Act of 2017.” This quaint bill aims to limit the authority of the Department of Education and repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The Department of Education would go from establishing policy for educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights to merely holding the purse strings for state block grants.
The formation of the Department of Education has been a thorn in the side of the Republican Party since it was upgraded to cabinet-level in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter. Numerous Republican presidential candidates have campaigned with the promise of eliminating the Department, including President Ronald Reagan and Senator Bob Dole.
Placing limitations on the Department of Education is troublesome enough, especially as it relates to civil rights and the desegregation of schools. The department would become responsible for disbursing funds in the form of block grants to states who comply with certain eligibility requirements. The new requirements mandate that each state has a voucher program in place where parents would be able to receive funds if they choose to either home-school their children or enroll them in a private school. This voucher system will have a profound effect on millions of special needs kids and has troubling implications for home-schooled children as well.
Effects on Home-Schooled Children
By creating a law that says that states must allow home-schooling introduces the near certainty of legislation into the mix. Current laws exempt home-schooled children from any requirements to pass or take any assessment as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. This is because, currently, home schools do not receive any federal grant money. By opening the option to give home-schooling parents monetary vouchers and thus giving them federal funding, this almost certainly mandates some form of compliance in order to receive the money. While the voucher program is currently worded as voluntary, this doesn’t stop the introduction of legislation aimed at regulating home schools.
The Troublesome “No Hungry Kids Act”
The innocently named Title II of the proposed legislature aims toward repealing a 2012 supplement in the Federal Registry. This supplement dealt with nutritional standards for school lunches and breakfasts. This was one of Michelle Obama’s most well-known fights aimed at improving the types of food served, mandating more fresh fruits and vegetables and limiting the amount of calories per meal. The guidelines also limited the amount of salt and mandated more whole grains be served.
Critics of the new legislation point to the amount of waste created as kids throw away the foods they don’t like, including vegetables and some fruits. According to a report by the Associated Press in the New York Daily News, a year after the program was instituted, schools began dropping out of the federal lunch program. The reasons were that the cafeterias were losing money because kids were no longer buying the healthy options available.
Repealing the ESEA
The primary issue with repealing the ESEA is that there is nothing to replace it and the millions of kids that it protects. The ESEA mandates things like IEPs, or individual education programs that are set for children with special learning needs. Crafting an IEP requires a team effort between the student, the parent, and the school as well as faculty. IEPs are meant to assess a child’s present performance and set guidelines for reaching an annual goal. It also determines what resources will be available to a special needs child during the day to make their school day a success.
There is no language in H.R. 610 that spells out anything for special education, while the ESEA mandates equal standards of education for every student, including special needs children. Repealing the ESEA without maintaining that protection means that schools are free to cut out special education resources as they struggle to meet budgetary limits in light of the new voucher system.
Parents with special needs children whose budget does not allow them to move their child to a more expensive private school will be forced by financial stratification to leave their children in a public school system. As more affluent and wealthy parents pull their children out of public schools to take advantage of the voucher system, the public school will lose funding, forcing them to make a hard choice in where to make cuts, with special needs students being left behind. That’s because a private school will not have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and with the ESEA repealed, there is no federal protection for them. Additionally, a private school can refuse to enroll a special needs child.
While H.R. 610 does not spell out that it will defund public schools, that’s the writing on the wall. This leaves parents of special needs children with a hard choice: either stay in an underfunded public program or move to a private school via a voucher system and take their chances there.
[Featured Image by Susan Walsh/AP Images]