Choices in Education Act

School vouchers do not equal school choice

Over the last week, I’ve seen a lot more support coming out for school vouchers under The Choices in Education Act (H.R. 610). A common thread in discussions I’ve had on facebook is, “So you object to something you are afraid will happen?” No, not really. This isn’t a hypothetical. It isn’t just “a foot in the door” or a “slippery slope.” It is simply what will happen . . . what is happening . . . what has happened. Only instead of applying solely to private schools accpeting vouchers, it will extend to homeschools as well.

school vouchers do not equal school choice

School vouchers do not equal school choice.

Issues in Education, a conservative Christian radio program discussing issues in education (as the title might suggest) ran a two part series supporting vouchers. (I heard the re-airing Sunday). They come out in strong support, quoting Milton Friedman,

“Choice doesn’t take money from public schools but gives the money to schools that teach the kids.”

And claiming that these vouchers will help parents get their children out of poor performing public schools and into private schools which do a better job of education at a lower cost. They see it as an opportunity to not only stop Christians from having to pay for a secular institution, but as an opportunity to take state money to evangelize secular youth.

But we now have 14 states plus the Disctrict of Columbia with a voucher system in place. Issues in Education highlights Nevada as the first state to give universal free choice to all students. Which isn’t even true. I think they mean that Nevada is the first state to make vouchers available to all students, but tax money is not the same as choice. The choice was there before, the only difference was the funding.

With state funding comes state control.

Even in Nevada. At the moment, Nevada’s regulations are pretty light. But the State Supreme Court ruling which (at least temporarily) blocked the implementation of the voucher system specifically states,

“We recognize the ESA program imposes conditions on the parents’ use of the funds in their account and also provides State oversight of the education savings accounts to ensure those conditions are met.” Nevada Homeschool Network

And like I said, Nevada’s requirements were light. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all states with voucher systems in place have accountability measures in place.

Accountability policies that oversee the performance of private school choice programs primarily focus on setting standards private schools must meet in order to accept participating students. Additionally, states may choose to collect and evaluate performance data on students participating in a school choice program. While every state with a private school choice program enforces some level of accountability, states vary widely in what they require from private schools.

Setting standards, standardized testing, collecting data. The exact same things we have been fighting from the beginning. But now because federal legislation mentions “homeschooling” in relation to vouchers, it will draw us under the same accountability umbrella.

The government does not have a monopoly on education. Yet.

Another conservative, Christian homeschool advocate, Mimi Rothschild, also favors vouchers. Enough to start collecting signatures for a petition on Change.org. After a brief description of what vouchers are and how America’s schools are failing, she writes,

“HB 610 effectively breaks up the governments monopoly on education. Monopolies are bad for everyone because when you only have one choice, there is no incentive for that provider to earn your business by building a better, cheaper product or service. Subject to the principles of free enterprise, schools will improve because they will be incentivized and rewarded when they offer a better school.  Schools who fail our children will die as they should. Schools who provide a great education will grow and compete for our business. America wins.”

But the government does not have a monopoly on education. We have private schools in every state. We have the right to homeschool in every state. We have public schools in every state. We already have choice in education in every state. This bill does nothing to expand our choices, protect our rights or expand our liberties.

Like Issues in Education, I believe Mrs. Rothschild is conflating government money with private choice.

Distributing government money not only allows but requires accountability measures to be put into place to guarantee that tax dollars are being spent in accordance with the educational goals of the state. Vice President Mike Pence worked hard on the voucher program for Indiana. Now all private schools receiving voucher money are required to administer the state assessment and are graded according to the state’s school grading system. 

Assessment shapes teaching. And bringing all schools, whether public, private or homeschools, under one test is a monopoly. A monopoly that will be aided by vouchers.

Not to mention the fact that Indiana homeschoolers currently do not even have to report their decision to homeschool to the state. That level of independence is not possible if school vouchers include homeschools.

She is right that the two most powerful education lobbies oppose vouchers. But she ignores the fact that HSLDA, the most powerful lobby in favor of homeschooling, also opposes these vouchers.

Taxes should be about raising revenue, not influencing behavior.

When I read the arguments in favor of vouchers for homeschoolers, I realize I may have a fundamentally different view of government than even many of my fellow Christian conservatives. I keep reading,

“But it’s my money. There’s nothing wrong with getting some of it back.”

But it isn’t mine. Not once it’s withheld. Then it becomes “our” money. Nebraska’s money. America’s money. It is there to do things like defend the nation from attack, build roads and catch criminals. We can debate what exactly falls under “the common good,” but that money is supposed to serve our common interests, not mine personally.

And really, if the government viewed it as my money, why would they take it to begin with? Why are we discussing vouchers and not lowering taxes? Why are we discussing vouchers and not expanding the child tax credit? What sense does it make to take my money just to give a percentage of it back to me?

Because it is about control. Even if the control is minimal, the state wants to make sure I spend it on “appropriate educational expenses.” But why should they decide whether my family is in greater need of a new curriculum or new clothes? In any decent family, an increase in income will result in better conditions for the children. And where that isn’t the case? Well, no amount of government regulation on the direction the money goes is going to help.

What can we do?

Call your representative. Outline your concerns and ask that homeschooling be dropped from the legislation.

Contact Issues in Education or other conservative programs you hear in suppport of school vouchers. They clearly want to increase choice in education, but I don’t think they have looked closely at what has happened to other institutions that started receiving government money.

Stay in the conversation. Discuss the issue on forums and social media. Share posts with good information. Let people know that there is more to school vouchers than just “school choice.”

The Choices in Education Act: Why Not Just Reject the Money?

Last week, I wrote about why I object to the Choices in Education Act as it is currently written. Commenter Katie asked,

“Would homeschoolers be required to use the vouchers? Or could they just opt out altogether and not accept any money whatsoever to offset their costs of education . . . ?”

choices in education act

It’s a good question. Why not just reject the money?

First, the law requires a reporting sytem that does not currently exist. Eleven states do not require any reporting at all. Homeschoolers who have worked to maintain their freedom from any state control will have this taken away in one stroke. The relationships they have built with their state legislatures and with their state homeschooling groups will not matter. Their state education agencies’ hands will be tied by federal law.

And no state currently has to report information to the federal government about homeschoolers. The US Department of Education is hungry for data on students. The system they are putting in place is wide reaching, including the basic demographic information you would expect on any government form as well as things like political affiliation, problems at home and affective and behavioral components that may be gathered by teachers or directly through the sensors in computer-based learning programs.

While this certainly would not immediately affect homeschoolers whether or not they took the voucher money, it is the kind of information the DOE wants on every student in America. Every step the federal government takes into our homeschools will inevitably lead toward including our data into their data mining schemes as well.

Second, what will be done with this data? Why does the government even need it? The information currently being collected is being analyzed to develop a predictive model of which students will and will not succeed in an educational setting.

“One goal is to provide consumers with user-friendly information that will help them select education and employment programs that best suit their needs. Another key goal–and the focus of this brief–is to make available timely information that can be used to help program providers and education and workforce systems overall improve their performance.”  ~Using Data to Promote Continuous Improvement of Workforce Programs (p. 1)

Meaning this data will be shared with schools, government and private employers. It will shape education goals and potentially be used to “track” students according to their tested ability toward different fields, possibly determining at a young age whether or not a student will be put on a course of study that includes college or immediate placement in the workplace. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity and education is one of the keys to that opportunity. Now we may be closing doors to students based on data collected through their school years, giving them few, if any, second chances. I am envisioning an America where we no longer ask children what they want to be when they grow up but instead ask them what their testing says they are going to be.

Does not taking the money protect us from this? Possibly. At least in the short term. But this law puts the system in place for reporting data on homeschoolers to the federal government. And their desire for information is almost limitless.

Third, we already have a strong push toward a federalized education system, with national standards and a national curriculum. We already have a system moving toward computer based learning, with tools to measure the affective domain and which includes behavioral and psychological measures as part of the standards. This push toward national standards has already affected private schools, thanks to the pressure from state governments and the funding structures already in place, never mind the potential of vouchers bringing even more money into the current system. Families are already feeling the need to leave even private, religious institutions in favor of homeschooling in order to escape the Common Core mandates they feel are distracting to the spiritual, emotional and academic growth of their children due to the undo focus on testing and performance.

The current administration may or may not view vouchers as a “back door” approach to bringing homeschoolers in line with national standards. But whatever policies are put into place now will be used (and abused) by future administrations to further direct education from the federal level. A significant number of homeschoolers likely will be drawn into the system, weakening our current organizations. But once the system is set up with a national exit exam as the only gateway to college and career, that test will affect teaching in every learning environment whether or not we directly signed on for it or not.

Finally, education should be a state issue. Period. Federal money should not be used, whether given to the states or directly to the parents, to influence the behavior of state agencies or parents. Even in the form of “choice,” it is simply outside the role of our federal government to force these programs on the states. Local school boards and state legislatures are more aware of the needs of their communities and more responsive to parental demands than the federal government. And it is the parent, not the state, that has the right to direct the education of their minor children.

If the sole purpose of this law were to give parents more resources to direct their child’s education, why not simply expand the Child Tax Credit? Or simply lower taxes? Let parents decide if their child is in greater need of a new school or new shoes or a family vacation. Because an increase in income in any good family will ultimately benefit the children in some way.

The argument that “it’s my money” does have some sway. But the natural conclusion is that the government shouldn’t be taking it in the first place.

So what’s the problem with vouchers?

Betsy DeVos is now our new Secretary of Education.

H.R. 610 and vouchers for homeschools

Some say she is the most unqualified person to fill the position. She was certainly one of the most controversial. All because her vision of education includes options outside the public education system. In her view, charter schools, private schools and homeschooling are all viable alternatives and that is not a position the teacher’s unions are particularly happy with.

That sounds great for homeschoolers.

So why is this is difficult for me? I support freedom in education. I do, after all, homeschool. I think we need more options for families who are stuck in sub-standard schools thanks to their income level. Education is a path out of poverty, but our worst schools are in our poorest areas. Unfortunately, choice in education does not necessarily mean freedom in education.

But there is another problem. A more subtle one. And one that we need to deal with quickly because bill H.R. 610 has already been put before Congress. Namely, what does federal money mean to a private institution? What would it mean for homeschooling?

My first objection to this is simple. Why on earth do I need to give the federal government money in order to have it returned to me via a voucher? We have enough money to support our children. We have enough money to educate our children. To participate in co-op. To sign up for some extra-curricular activities. To send them to camp. We don’t need money from the government to do any of this. How much of my tax dollars are eaten up in the bureaucracy so that I can get a small amount back in the form of a voucher? Why not just let me keep my money to begin with? What is the real reason behind this carrot on a stick?

And that brings me to my second objection. Federal money is about control. Pure and simple. It may or may not begin that way, but in the end, accepting federal money means accepting federal control.

Consider President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. As Os Guinness writes in A Case for Civility (p. 51 – 52),

“…the project {faith-based initiatives] was self-defeating as a concept because the close relationship between government and faith-based groups almost inevitably leads, first to a growing dependency of the faith-based organization on the government, and, eventually, to the effective secularization of the faith-based group. In the words of David Kuo, President George W. Bush’s special assistant for faith-based initatives, ‘Between Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services alone, for example, more than $1.5 billion went to faith-based groups every year. But their activity had come at a spiritual cost. They were, as organizations, largely secular.'”

Or even just consider the title of the book David Kuo wrote after serving with President Bush’s faith-based initiatives: Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. He did not come away from his service of these programs full of hope about what they could do for America. He came away with a warning about the spiritual cost of mixing federal funds with religious institutions.

In the beginning, the money looks nice. In the beginning, it doesn’t even seem like there are all that many strings. You have to report yourself to the government. That alone accounts for increased regulation in eleven states. The money you receive cannot exceed your actual cost of homeschooling, but how is that determined? Does that mean you then have to keep receipts and turn them in? And how long will it be before only approved curriculum will be accepted?

The law spells out that this money follows the student and is not a grant to the institution, most likely in an attempt to get around directly funding private, religious organizations. But how long will that hold up? Hillsdale College in Michigan received no federal funding directly, but because it accepted students who had federal grants, the Supreme Court ruled against them in an almost decade long battle with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Because accepting a student who has federal money is the same as accepting federal money.

We already have models for what happens when private organizations take federal money. They become increasingly dependent on that money and, worse, they become more and more like government programs through the inevitable regulation that follows. And whether the money goes directly to the school or follows the student, we already have a Supreme Court ruling setting precedent for how much control that gives the government over the operations of otherwise private institutions.

Why would we want to accept that level of control? That’s why I believe we should keep the money out of homeschooling and keep homeschooling free.

And if you’re wondering why we can’t just refuse the money, I wrote more on that here: The Choices in Education Act: Why not just refuse the money?