H.R. 610 Choices in Education Act: a disaster if it passes in Congress

The editorial below is from the blog Politics: A View from West Chester, by Nathaniel Smith. (Here is a link to the bill: HR 610 – Choices in Education Act)

This Congress seems determined to undo all the beneficial functions of government, such as promoting public health, protecting the environment, reducing gun violence, or furthering public education.

The majority party is against “choice” until it suits them to use the word as cover for their own purposes. Newly installed (by a vote of 51-50) Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will be very happy with this bill, since she believes that “government sucks.” it will suck even more if HR 610 ever  becomes law.

Title I of this bill would negate all federal functions regarding K-12 education except to give block grants to “qualified” states in proportion to the number of “eligible” children.

In order to qualify, states must agree to distribute each child’s share of these federal funds to parents for use in any public schools, private schools (of which over 80% are religious), or home-schooling.

So, students in rich districts and poor districts, in families of all economic levels, in religious and non-religious schools, special needs and super-gifted students, students with parents realistically capable of home-schooling them or not–all would get the same cut of Secretary DeVos’s pie.

How about students without a fixed parent or guardian or even a stable address? The bill doesn’t seem to do much for them.

Does the bill set any criteria for home-schooling? No, and even though states may have a say, it isn’t hard to guess that a lot of parents will decide they would rather collect the funds than send their child to a school of any sort. Payments “shall not exceed the cost of home-schooling the child,” but who could possibly know?

Does the bill refer to any standards for schools to meet? No.

Does the  bill require the child to be making some recognizable progress? No, just be “aged 5 to 17, inclusive.” So a student age 5-17, even if repeating one grade 3 times, qualifies, but a high school senior aged 18, for whatever reason such as earlier serious illness, doesn’t.

Don’t federal and states standards cover some of these things? Maybe, but none are referenced in the bill.  In a year when you can see regulations falling like dominoes, you can bet that once the door is opened by HR  610, no one will dare turn off the money.

And then there is a constitutional issue.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This has been taken (until 2017, at least) to prevent the US government from subsidizing religious institutions. This bill gets around that by saying that the funds go to the parents, who turn it over to the religious school. But the magnitude of this scheme, and the potential to create more religious schools and shut down non-religious schools, will surely interest the court system.

Similarly on the state level. The PA Constitution I.3 says: “…no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent.”

If our state and school districts are obliged to distribute federal money– just to give an example much in the news these days– to subsidize the extensive charter school network of  Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen (a PA resident accused of orchestrating the recent failed coup d’état in Turkey), does that violate the state constitution? This could be interesting.

Similarly, PA Constitution III.15 says; “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” If the state asks for federal money under HR 610, is it “raising” money? In my view, it would certainly be violating the obvious intent that public funds should not subsidize sectarian schools. Of course, proponents say they would be subsidizing parents, not schools, even though the relevant section of the  bill is titled “Distribution to Schools.”

And then, just as bad, is Title II, called with another counterfactual flourish the “No Hungry Kids Act.” This part would overturn a 2012 Department of Agriculture rule designed to set healthy standards and calorie limits for school food.

All  we have to do is quote the official summary of this bill to see how nefarious this part is, describing the rule to be scrapped:

“In general, the rule requires schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals; and meet children’s nutritional needs within their caloric requirements.”

In sum, House Bill 610 is a catastrophe and if our representatives in Congress don’t want to talk about it, their constituents have to make them.