May 9, 2018


The Advocate, May 2018

By Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director, AASA


The VOUCHER Fight Of 2018: Are You Weighing In?

It’s no secret the Trump/DeVos Administration favors efforts to privatize federal education dollars. With the help of a Republican-controlled Congress, they have eked out a few wins this session that furthers the pro-voucher agenda. 

First, in the FY17 Omnibus last year, voucher proponents were successful in getting the only federally-funded voucher program—the DC voucher program—reauthorized for 5 years despite a widely publicized study conducted by the U.S. Dept. of Education that found D.C. students using vouchers to attend private schools were performing worse than their public school counterparts in math and reading.

Second, during the tax reform debate in Congress, voucher advocates received support for a change to 529 college savings accounts that permits taxpayers in some states to use these tax-free accounts to set aside $10,000 in K-12 private school expenses as well.

However, as soon as the ink dried on tax reform, AASA began fighting the most significant of battles that threaten public education dollars this Congress. Working closely with our friends at the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS) and many other education, civil rights, disability rights, religious and secular groups that belong to the National Coalition for Public Education (which AASA co-chairs), we honed in on a new voucher proposal that would allow active duty military families living on military bases to obtain a $2,500 (or in some exceptional cases a $4,500) voucher that they could use for private school, homeschool, virtual school, summer camp, tutoring and therapies, or college savings.

The scheme was flexible and straightforward: As long as an active-duty military family would not send their child to a public school full-time they could receive a small but very flexible voucher known as an “education savings account.” How would these vouchers be subsidized? Only through the oldest, most respected and most bipartisan funding stream at the federal level: Impact Aid.

Impact Aid was designed to direct federal dollars to districts who lack tax revenue due to the presence of federal land (forests, military bases/depots, Indian reservations, etc). It was never meant to be doled out on a per-pupil basis and it was never meant to be used solely to support military-connected kids. However, the Heritage Foundation, the most powerful conservative organization in the country along with their friends like ALEC, EdChoice, The American Federation of Children, The Club for Growth, and about 20 other heavy-hitting conservative pro-voucher organizations decided this was the education fight for 2018 and they proposed legislation called, “The Military Education Savings Account” (HR 5199/S.2517).

To up the ante to get the bill passed, Heritage took the unusual step of adding co-sponsorship of the bill to its political scorecard—which means a Republican hoping to be in Heritage’s good policy and funding graces during this election cycle would lose points even if they failed to co-sponsor (little less vote for) the bill. To date, there are more than 60 Republicans in the House who are signed on as co-sponsors. That’s 1 out of every 4 Republicans in the House.

The good news? We’ve already won round 1 in the fight. Despite having considerably fewer resources to go toe-to-toe with these well-funded political organizations, the education community (helped considerably by allies in the military community that we engaged) has succeeded in making Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee  uncomfortable enough with this specific proposal that the Committee vote planned for May 9th on the bill will not come up for a vote. While we may have won the first battle to protect Impact Aid funding from vouchers the war is far from over.

Because they were denied a vote in Committee, Heritage and its allies need to rally enough votes to pass this on the floor of the House. The week of May 21st is when the House will be considering this bill as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). NDAA is a must-pass bill to fund the Department of Defense every year. The Senate Armed Services Committee will also be considering this bill as part of their mark-up of NDAA.

If you haven’t weighed in yet with House or Senate representatives—please do! YOUR voice makes a difference in debate. After personally attending dozens of meetings with House staff over the past three months about the Impact Aid voucher bill, I was repeatedly heartened to hear that they had already heard from school leaders who expressed “strong concerns” with this proposal and that your voices were making a meaningful difference in how Congressional offices viewed the bill.

The takeaway for school leaders: It doesn’t matter the opponent—your voice matters.

You are a highly-respected constituent and all the money and political pressure from the other side doesn’t always equate to victory. Keep weighing in. We must stop this new federal education voucher scheme from coming to fruition.  

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