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Here’s What You Should Know About That Voucher Bill From Rep. Steve King

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 14, 2017 4 min read
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Although he’s made headlines recently for controversial comments not directly about schools, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa has also made waves for introducing a bill that would dramatically reshape K-12 and education policy. That’s House Resolution 610, and it would create federally backed vouchers for students.

We wrote about the bill earlier this year. The Choices in Education Act of 2017, the in-plain-English name of the bill, would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main K-12 law, of which the Every Student Succeeds Act is the latest version. It would create vouchers funded by Washington for parents to use at private schools if they chose to do so, or to use for home schooling their child. Under King’s legislation, the federal government would fund those vouchers through creating block grants for states.

“As the spouse of a former Iowa teacher, I understand that it’s the right thing for our children to take their education decision[s] out of the hands of the federal government and put it back in the hands of parents who know how best to meet the educational needs of their students,” King said in a statement last year about a similar bill he introduced in 2016.

In addition, King’s bill would overturn nutritional standards published in 2012 for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs.

School Leaders Zero In on Bill

“This is hands-down the number one bill I’m getting emails about from my members,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which represents 13,000 district leaders. Ng also told us Monday that it was one of the biggest topics of conversation when she met with school administrators at the group’s recent conference in New Orleans.

We reached out to King’s office to ask him more about the bill, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been a supporter of vouchers for many years. And President Donald Trump has backed the concept of vouchers in remarks both before and after his election last year, although we don’t know if that’s the form of school choice the Trump administration will throw its weight behind. Their combined presence in Washington, however, has possibly fueled interest in this legislation.

Here are several things to keep in mind about King’s bill:

  1. Many, if not the vast majority of, GOP lawmakers are big fans of school choice, including Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee chairman. However, King’s bill to substitute a federal voucher program for the ESEA likely won’t sit well with many Republican members of Congress. In fact, in 2015, the Senate rejected Alexander’s proposed amendment to ESSA that would have instituted a voucher program. And the Senate now has more Democratic lawmakers than it did then. It’s unlikely any Democrat will vote to create nationwide, federal vouchers.
  2. More on that previous point: Republican lawmakers representing predominantly rural states have expressed concerns about a federal voucher program, in part because they don’t feel private school choice will help many of the children back home. In fact, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., touted DeVos’ promise not to “impose” a national school choice program as one reason Fischer felt comfortable voting to confirm her as education secretary. (DeVos, of course, couldn’t institute a broad voucher program on her own—she’d need authorization from Congress first.)
  3. As we mentioned above, King also introduced a version of this bill late last year. That bill didn’t really get traction.
  4. King does not sit on the House education committee.
  5. Even beyond school choice politics, the bill has a complicated path ahead. That’s because it also deals with federally supported school meal programs. But the congressional jurisdiction over those programs lies with the agriculture committees, not the education committees. So getting lawmakers in charge of agriculture issues to move the bill along is, obviously, more complicated than getting just top K-12 lawmakers to prioritize the legislation.
  6. Absent procedural maneuvers from GOP lawmakers, a standalone voucher bill like the type King proposed likely would be subject to a filibuster in the Senate, potentially limiting its chances.

So how do choice advocates feel about the bill? We checked in with a prominent one, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli, who’s also a former U.S. Department of Education official. We asked Petrilli whether he 1) would support the bill, 2) thinks it has a chance of passing Congress, and 3) supports repealing the ESEA in particular, as the bill proposes to do. Here are his responses in their entirety:

1) No

2) .000000001%

3) No

Another potential vehicle for Congress to expand school choice is through tax-credit scholarships. We discussed that possibility here. And in a separate post, we analyzed how such a tax-credit school choice proposal could move through Congress outside traditional education channels.

Jason Botel, a senior education adviser in the Trump administration, also praised a portion of ESSA that creates a weighted student-funding pilot for up to 50 districts. But that pilot doesn’t appear to allow for money to be used on private school choice, and under the pilot districts control the flow of money.

Photo: Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa addresses a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP-File)

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