The most important education legislation ever passed in the United States was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), designed to help fund elementary and secondary education and make it accessible, equal, and fair for all children.
To achieve this goal, ESEA allocated money to states to support their most vulnerable children – those living in poverty, at risk of abuse, or handicapped. It provided money for drop-out prevention and literacy programs, textbooks and library materials, and quality professional development for educators.
Since then the law has been tweaked and reauthorized every five years. In 2001, George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that increased testing of individual students and accountability of schools. Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) that dropped some of the more onerous requirements of NCLB and limited the power of the Secretary of Education.
The law’s foremost goal, making education available for every child, hasn’t changed. States and local school districts are the heavy lifters of education, but ESSA serves as a vision statement about the importance of education.
Now some Republicans want to do away with that vision. Three representatives have introduced a bill in the House that would repeal ESSA and take away from the Department of Education any role except disbursing block grants to states. Those grants would be turned into vouchers used to pay for private or religious schools or for homeschooling.
HR 610 also repeals nutrition rules that reduce the levels of saturated and trans fat and sodium and increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free milk in school breakfasts and lunches.
Such short-sighted legislation is a disappointment. Who thinks that children should eat more saturated fat and sodium? Or be unable to attend school if they are handicapped? Or should have fewer library books and less technology in their schools?
But the legislation isn’t a surprise, given the current administration’s dismissal of education as a common good, seeing it instead as a market to be exploited.
Likewise, the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, a staunch critic of public education and an advocate for private school vouchers, sends a signal that the privatization of public education is the ultimate objective.
Yet study after study calls into question the efficacy of vouchers. This week the Economic Policy Institute published a comparison of voucher programs both in the U.S. and internationally. The study concludes that vouchers are a poor use of public money, are more expensive to run and maintain than expected, and are largely ineffective in improving student performance or graduation rates. People who support them do so out of ideology despite overwhelming evidence that they are a bad investment.
Evidence does show that states that invest in rigorous teacher pre-service training, quality early childhood education, after-school and summer education opportunities for students, and health and nutrition programs both in and out of schools do far more to improve student performance than privatization. The vast majority of American children – 90% – attend public schools, and legislation such as HR 610 is a dangerous diversion from proven techniques we ought to be supporting.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org