School Choice Should Loosen, Not Strengthen, Federal Grip on Education

When President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 was released, many advocates of school choice were thrilled to see the cuts recommended for the Department of Education, to the tune of $7.1 billion. For those who believe that the federal government has no place in determining education policy, a $64 billion budget for the Department of Education is certainly preferable to a $71 billion budget.

The rhetoric of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also fits to this tune. "It’s easier to keep spending, to keep saying yes, and to keep saddling tomorrow’s generations with today’s growing debt," DeVos said to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. "Doing the same thing, and more of it, won’t bring about new results. I propose a different approach: Freedom. This budget focuses on freedom for teachers, freedom for parents, freedom for all students."

Advocates of school choice would agree that freedom is indeed the way to go when it comes to ensuring that every student in America has access to a quality education that fits his or her specific needs. However, most of us would also argue that this cannot be done properly with the heavy hand of the federal government, in any form. Any action that the federal government takes in the education space should be to decrease its footprint in the lives and choices of students.

Unfortunately, one major proposal in the president’s fiscal year 2020 budget request that has been made a priority by Secretary DeVos is the implementation of a new $5 billion federal tax credit scholarship. Although the end goal of the scholarship is admirable in spirit — increasing the use of scholarships as a means to increase school choice — using any federal program to reach this end is perilous.

Not only does the federal government not have constitutional grounds to be involved in, let alone expand its involvement in, the education space, but a program such as this is ripe for abuse. It would undoubtedly be manipulated and weaponized down the road with a different administration hostile to school choice, undermining many of the very goals of the program.

This proposal has been introduced in Congress as the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, H.R. 1434 and S. 634, by Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). However, instead of pursuing this legislation, proponents of school choice in the House and Senate should seek out other options that expand school choice.

Many proposals currently in Congress do in fact stay within the bounds of the Constitution, keep in line with Republican goals to simplify — not complicate — the tax code, and advance the vision that our founding fathers had of a system of federalism that allows states, localities, and families to control education choices for their students and communities.

Of course, the gold standard for such proposals is the full elimination of the Department of Education. Introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and cosponsored by 11 other school choice heroes, H.R. 899 would do just that.

Short of this, though, options such as establishing and expanding education savings accounts (ESAs) and 529 savings plans offer promise to put some educational power back into the hands of families, where it belongs. The Student Empowerment Act, H.R. 621 and S. 167, and the Educational Freedom Accounts Act, H.R. 778, take strides in the right direction in this space, building both on the national movement to expand ESAs and on the provision of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to expand 529s.

Of course, the options for congressional meddling in the education space while keeping in line with principles of strict constitutionalism and federalism can and should be limited. But, when considering action in the federal space, members of Congress who consider themselves champions of school choice should be wary of proposals to expand federal involvement in education, regardless of the intended ends.

Empowering students, their families, local communities, and states to take the reins on education is the right way to go, but as always, the devil is in the details.