Conservatives' education bill will increase federal bureaucracy

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Sasha Pudelski

It may seem counterintuitive, but conservative organizations from the Heritage Foundation, to FreedomWorks, to the Club for Growth are pushing an education bill this year that would significantly enlarge the bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Education. That’s right, the same organizations that have decried the “bloated education bureaucracy” and that give awards to members of Congress who are “fighting daily to shrink government and the federal bureaucracy” are urging Congress to significantly increase secretarial authority over K–12 and higher education.

Why are they doing this? To create a new federal education voucher program that would allow dollars to flow out of public schools and into private schools and businesses. As Congress draws to a close without a signature school voucher victory, these organizations are pounding the pavement to try and garner a big win while both chambers still remain under Republican control. The piggybank for this voucher bill is the Impact Aid program, which is the oldest K–12 federal education program and was created to support school districts impacted by a federal presence, such as military installations, Indian treaty or trust land, and other federal facilities.

The specific voucher legislation, the Military Education Savings Account Act, targets the children of active duty military personnel. However, not all active duty servicemembers’ children are eligible. Only children with a parent on active military duty and residing within a “heavily impacted” local education agency (LEA), as defined in the Impact Aid program, or children with parents on active military duty who reside on a military installation would be eligible for vouchers. These vouchers can be used for a variety of education related expenses, including private schools, online schools and curriculum, afterschool programs, summer camps, computers, and therapists. The families are responsible for reporting how they use the money, and the U.S. Department of Education has to be able to monitor the use of funds, allocate resources on a rolling basis, and monitor for fraud and noncompliance by both families and educational providers.

Currently, close to sixty Republicans in the House of Representatives support this proposal. What’s not clear is whether these Republicans and the aforementioned conservative organizations have considered the many ways in which this legislation would require the beastly bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Education to further ensnarl its big federal paws into the hands of individual families’ bank accounts, private K–12 educational businesses, and private schools.

In addition to drafting a new set of regulations (which clearly will go against the Trump Administration’s bold regulatory rollback process and provisions), at a bare minimum this will require the education department to draft, seek public input on, and finalize new regulations on how the new federal school choice program would operate.

It would also require the agency to create and set up a completely new data system to collect, review, and monitor the following: a written contract signifying parents will abide by the terms of the statute vis-à-vis use of federal dollars; verification of parents’ active duty status; and verification that the family’s home address is located on a military installation or within the boundaries of a heavily impacted school district. For example, if a family moves off base and is no longer eligible for funding, then the U.S. Department of Education would need to track their change of address and make sure they no longer receive federal dollars. Keeping the agency informed of this changing information would be challenging for military families, who are incredibly mobile.

In addition, the education department would have unprecedented oversight into the finances of military families. It would need to develop a process to deposit sums into parents’ bank accounts, and parents would have to submit a quarterly expense report to the agency detailing how they will use the money in accordance with federal law. And the department would need a system to recoup the money from parents who later violate those usage restrictions.

The bill also outlines specific criteria for how federal dollars used for educational expenses are spent down and how unspent federal funds could be rolled over for additional years. Imagine a family that moves twice in three years from a base in Alabama where they receive a voucher that they use for homeschooling to a residence off base in Virginia, where they are ineligible for a voucher and opt to enroll in the public-school system. Under this bill, the education department would have to be able to monitor a family’s voucher accounts to ensure they have completely used all federal funds while they were eligible, have drawn down all federal resources during their allotted time, and are no longer receiving or using federal funds for educational expenses. 

The education department would also be entangled with private businesses, private schools, individual therapists (like an ABA therapist or occupational therapist), and educational providers with which they may have no current relationship. Because federal dollars would now flow to a variety of new entities, the agency would be required to monitor how these dollars are spent. Any business, school, or entity that receives over $100,000 in federal dollars from families in this program would have to post a surety bond, which is an instrument that guarantees that the education department will receive at least some of their tuition money back in the event of a school closure. But even a speech pathologist in private practice who works with a few active-duty families on base and receives $2,000 in federal dollars would be subject to increased oversight and monitoring by the department. This therapist, because she is being paid in federal dollars, would have to comply with Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)—a complicated law with a set regulations governing student privacy. In addition, the agency would have to establish a way of monitoring this speech therapist’s practices (and all other educational providers) that ensures families could be issued refunds in the event of fraud or nonperformance by the provider. 

And the most complicated new task for the education department would be tracking the total cost of the Impact Aid program. The total cost will change on a quarterly basis based on enrollment in the voucher program, and the agency will have redistribute resources in real-time to districts based on these changes. The education department would also have to reduce funding for “Basic Support Payments” (the primary funding stream for Impact Aid) on a rolling basis over the course of the year, all the while recalculating school district allocations under the program. This, among other things, prevents the 1,100 participating LEAs from operating with any certainty on how much program funding they will receive—or even when they will receive the funds. Impact Aid dollars would cease being a stable source of funding, complicating districts’ limited ability to fund their schools—all due to the heightened presence of the GOP-led federal government.

The conservative mantra “less is more” regarding federal bureaucracy is being blatantly ignored by conservatives who support this bill. Nothing in federal law precludes military families from taking advantage of dozens of state voucher programs as long as the state is paying for it. Support for this new federal education program flies in the face of most recent federal education policy trends, like the Every Student Succeeds Act, which reduced federal overreach and gave much power back to states and local districts.

Conservatives who are being bullied into supporting this bill need to reconsider whether the U.S. Department of Education and its compliance and monitoring machine belong in families’ bank accounts, businesses, and educational entities, especially when the goals is providing additional educational options to servicemembers and military families who clearly do not want them.

Sasha Pudelski is the Advocacy Director of the School Superintendents Association.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.