Education leaders in the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County, Md. are reacting negatively to a bill proposed by an Iowa U.S. representative that makes substantial changes in the administration of public education.

On Jan. 23, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) introduced HB 610, “The Choices in Education Act.” This legislation would repeal “The Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965” that supports public schools with federal dollars. It also weakens nutritional standards in the nation’s public school cafeterias and authorizes a federal voucher program.

“As the spouse of a former Iowa teacher, I understand that it’s the right thing for our children to take education decisions out of the hands of the federal government and back into the rightful hands of parents who know best to meet the educational needs of our own children,” King said.

Markus Batechelor represents Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education. (AFRO File Photo)
Markus Batechelor represents Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education. (AFRO File Photo)

Regarding the voucher program, King said “the freedom of choice will result in parents being able to send their children to safer, better schools by taking federal dollars from failing programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core” and giving parents the choice to use those dollars to send their children to public, private, or home-schooled institutions.

On the nutrition standards, King wants to get the United States Department of Agriculture out of feeding school children. He wants the states to make those types of decisions so that “schools must be serving our students as much nutritious food as they need, so that our students can grow, learn, and excel, in school and out of school-in the classroom and on the playing field.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wants to expand the state’s school voucher program by $7 million, while Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III, is opposed to the voucher concept. Baker believes taxpayer funds should be used to strengthen Prince George’s County public schools.

Others in the Washington metropolitan area are also critical of King’s bill. “I don’t support this legislation at all,” Markus Batchelor, a Ward 8 D.C. State Board of Education member, told the AFRO. “The promise of America is a good quality education, no matter where you live.”

The District was the first jurisdiction in the country to have a federally-supported school voucher program in 2003, despite some reservations by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). The program, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, was authorized in 2003 and expired in 2009.

The program was resurrected in 2011 despite Norton’s chief argument that the D.C. Council, not the Congress, should decide on school vouchers.

Batchelor isn’t a fan of vouchers. “Voucher programs don’t necessarily help students achieve academically,” he said. “What is needed and what I support is a good quality school in walking distance or close proximity in every neighborhood in the city.”

“Those in support of HB 610 posture that it will ‘systematically’ fix what is wrong with public schools,” Barbara Dezmon, education committee chairman of the Maryland Conference of NAACP Chapters, told the AFRO. “The MSC would suggest that most of the bill’s supporters should try to fix those perceived wrongs rather than adopt measures that encourage ‘flight’ from public schools. With already diminishing resources and cuts in federal funding to education for the public greater good, we just can’t afford investment in voucher programs.”

“Additionally, it raises further questions about equity in schools for Black and other minority and poor students,” she said.

Dezmon agrees with Batchelor that the value of vouchers is questionable. “Vouchers also have a doubtful history as related to poor students and students with disabilities,” she said. “Often the private schools cannot accommodate these students, so they don’t have the same opportunity. The MSC observes inequities even in public education; however, moves such as those suggested in this bill will only exacerbate problems in this area.”

Regarding the watering-down of nutritional standards, Batchelor said that HB 610 “would be a death knell for our kids.”

“I represent a ward where children are living in food deserts and obesity is a problem,” he said.

King’s bill is in line with the beliefs of President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the ranking member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, the panel that will look at King’s bill if it is scheduled, hasn’t taken a public stand on the legislation but has made it clear through statements that he supports public education.