Representative Steve King of Iowa, who is known for his inflammatory speech and ideas of culture and race, introduced HR 610 in the 2017-2018 session of Congress as a way to change how federal spending in the United States goes toward the educational processes for children. The result of this legislation, had it passed, would have been to spend less on the traditional public school while sending more money to home-schooled or privately educated students through the use of a voucher program.
The effective results of HR 610 would be a complete repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that was part of the Johnson Administration’s war on poverty at the time. It has been reauthorized in different formats, such as the No Child Left Behind Act or the Every Student Succeeds Act.
HR 610 says this. “The bill establishes an education voucher program, through which each state shall distribute block grant funds among local educational agencies based on the number of children within each geographical area.” It distributes a portion of the money to parents to help enroll in private schools or start home schooling, then does so in a way that ensures the money is used for educational purposes.
Although Representative King might be a controversial elected official, the merits of school vouchers are worth debating. That is why a complete look at the pros and cons of HR 610 as it was proposed should be part of the conversation.
List of the Pros of HR 610
1. It would give parents a way to avoid problematic public schools.
There are some excellent public schools in the United States. You will also find that there are some which struggle to provide an educational environment for their children. Parents might struggle with the implementation of an IEP because administrators disagree with the medical diagnosis of a child. There could be problems learning in the classroom. Some parents might not agree with the assignments or information their students receive from their teacher.
By having access to a voucher like HR 610 would provide, then it becomes possible for low-income families to take more control over their child’s education. “Parents know far better than government bureaucrats what their children need from an education standpoint,” said Matt Salmon, “and they should be permitted to make that choice.”
2. Vouchers could improve educational resources by encouraging competition.
When parents have the option to demand private schooling or can afford to home-school their kids, then a voucher program like HR 610 would create more competition in the community. School districts would need to improve their services to stay competitive with the other educational institutions around them to encourage enrollment. That means the cost of a high-quality education would begin to decrease, public schools would look for expert staff, and parents would feel like they had some leverage over the way that their children are learning.
“The idea of school choice is spreading like wildfire around the country,” said Clint Bolick, “because it’s the one education reform that puts real choices and opportunity into the hands of families who desperately need them.”
3. It allows a family to decide what kind of learning environment would help them the most.
Because school vouchers would offset many of the costs that parents would face pulling their child out of their local public school, there is no longer the need to put up with controversial, experimental, or abusive teaching practices. Families who want to follow a specific religious upbringing could do so with HR 610 without the fear of going bankrupt trying to do so. Kids could attend a highly capable school to be challenged instead of sitting through boring lectures that involve information they already know.
That means the structure of HR 610 would allow each family to choose the best educational options for their needs in any given year.
4. Vouchers would create accountability through enrollment and funding.
The U.S. is somewhat unique in its educational approach because religious and private institutions are usually exempt from the mandatory testing that public schools must do each year. Although HR 610 would not change this issue, it would allow parents to hold administrators and teachers accountable for their actions by giving them an option to attend a different school the next year if they are dissatisfied with the results they achieve.
There are short-term costs to consider with this approach that could become financially challenging for some communities, but it also sets the stage to let market forces control enrollment costs and the quality of each outcome while promoting greater choice over the long run.
5. It might cost less to provide a high-quality education using vouchers.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank with over 30 years of experience, found that some states provide scholarships or vouchers to students and their families if they meet certain income requirements. Florida has already saved over $40 million since 2002 by offering a program that is similar to what HR 610 provides for the rest of the country. Any savings generated by such a plan would then go right back into the community to help even more children who are in need.
A survey offered through the Heritage Foundation found that 51% of senators and 47% of Representatives with school-age children enrolled them in private schools. Even half of public school teachers do the same.
6. Communities could create charter school networks with HR 610.
One of the most unique aspects of HR 610 is that it opens the door to the possibility of created a network of charter schools in each community. These institutions are still part of the public school system, so parents would not necessarily be responsible for any extra tuition costs as they would be with a private school. Charters can come from teachers, parents, or community members, offering some of the same exemptions that are available to those outside of the public school system.
Most charter schools succeed when there are significant levels of parental involvement available to the staff. HR 610 would help to keep classroom sizes small, provide more choice, and even create more jobs under this scenario.
7. Private schools do not always mean “religious” education.
There can be some controversy about HR 610 and other school voucher ideas because there are numerous private schools in the United States which offer religious guidance as one of their primary benefits. Although this option would be possible for parents, it is not a mandatory element of using the block grant funds. That is why this issue falls outside of the separation of church and state statutes in the U.S. Constitution. Parents receive the money for vouchers to be used at their discretion instead of being forced to follow a specific religious belief.
“School choice is one of the strongest ways we have to educate our children,” said Ari Fleischer.
List of the Cons of HR 610
1. The presence of school vouchers does not guarantee a better outcome.
Parents derive more satisfaction with programs like HR 610 because it gives them more choices in their community to pursue a high-quality education for their children. When you look at the actual data that schools produce when vouchers are available, it shows that student performance is equal whether these funds are used or not. Students using a D.C.-based voucher program achieved the same mathematics and reading comprehension results as students in public schools.
In Milwaukee, WI, 80% of voucher funds go toward religious schools. The students who attended public school outperformed those going to classes with a voucher in virtually every key metric. If HR 610 were to ever go into effect, there would need to be some guidance as to how an education would be given to a child.
2. There must be a private school in a community or a willingness to create a school at home.
Some communities across the United States are small enough that they do not have an additional private school available for their community’s children. School voucher programs only work when there is a guaranteed alternative available for parents to consider. If the commute to a school-of-choice is more than 15 minutes without bus support, then there is an excellent chance that legislation like HR 610 would not have the intended result.
The only way to get out of this disadvantage is to become a home-schooling family with a qualifying income to receive support. If that is not possible, then the public school becomes your only choice – even if you don’t like what they are teaching.
3. The money from HR 610 would go from public schools to private ones.
Most of the people who take advantage of school voucher programs like HR 610 take their kids out of public school to enroll them in a private one. The institution tends to be religious more often than not, which still creates a potential issue with the Constitution for some people. Property tax levies and other taxation funding go into the voucher program, which means households are involuntarily funding a religious education through their federal funds.
4. There is still no guarantee of the quality of an education.
Switching from a public school to a private one does not guarantee that you will receive better teachers. You can even qualify for home schooling and still come up with an inferior result. One of the reasons behind this disadvantage is that HR 610 does not prevent a school from placing religious mandates or edicts on their staff. They can sometimes use alternative forms of discipline in the classroom. Unless you 100% agree with the moral worldview of the institution, you might find that the results of the voucher are worse than what a child would have received in a public setting.
5. Parents may still have expenses to pay with a school voucher program.
HR 610 does not create an opportunity for a free education in the private sector, although some parents might find that the cost of some schools is covered by the funds they would receive through this legislation. The tuition expense for some institutions exceeds the voucher amount, which means the household would be responsible for any additional expenses related to their child’s education.
Because of the voucher funding issues in Milwaukee, an increase in the property tax levy became necessary to offset the losses that came because of this program. That means the public schools pay more, taxpayers pay more, and even the families receiving a voucher pay more to send their children to school. The only people who win in a program like HR 610 are the home-schooled kids and private institutions.
6. There are no performance indicators required in HR 610.
Because private schools are exempt from the standardized testing processes that public schools must use, there might be no way to determine how well a student performs in the classroom. Although some grades are based on factual information and recall, there are plenty of classes where the final grade awarded to a child is subjective. Teachers may consciously or unconsciously pick favorites and award grades that may not be fully earned when legislation like HR 610 is in place.
7. Market forces do not always work in a community.
The schools that tend to benefit the most from ideas like HR 610 are those that find the funding loopholes in the legislation. Some households only had to enroll their students in a school to take advantage of the voucher program in some communities, which means they could attend their regular school while getting the cash from the alternative program. If you already go to a private school and meet the income qualifications, then you’re getting a discount on what you’d planned to pay already. You might even find that the impact of a private school is not as strong as what the public school provides, which turns the market forces upside-down.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of HR 610
If you have a well-designed voucher system which provides for school choice and encourages competition, then there is a possibility to see more advantages than disadvantages with an idea like HR 610. When the goal is more about funding private institutions with public money, then there are fewer ways to hold people accountable to their actions in the educational environment.
We have high levels of accountability if a community will benefit from an idea like HR 610 in the future. Then we must support our low-income families to ensure that they can provide their children with an option to go to their school of choice.
The pros and cons of HR 610 are ultimately hypothetical since Representatitve King’s bill did not pass. By looking at each key point, we can start getting ready for the next time a voucher idea comes before Congress or a state legislature.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.