Ted Cruz and Homeschooling

There has recently been some buzz here and elsewhere about Ted Cruz’ co-sponsorship of S. 306- the Enhancing Educational Opportunities for All Students Act.  This bill was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee and referred to the Senate Finance Committee where it awaits further action.  There are two main parts to this bill- one that addresses the portability of Title I funds and another that addresses Coverdell education savings accounts.

Leaving aside the source of the criticisms leveled against Cruz with respect to this bill, it requires some explanation.  Title I funds are the primary source of federal funding for K-12 education.  To receive funds under Title I, the government uses a complex system based on children who hail from families below a certain percentage of the poverty level.  They are considered “at risk” and federal education funds are allocated to the states to distribute to school districts.  Sometimes those funds are earmarked for specific schools and sometimes they are earmarked district-wide.

S. 306 would make those per-pupil expenditures portable with respect to the student/child(ren) regardless of where they are schooled.  For example, Title I funds account for about 10% of per-pupil spending nationwide.  So if it takes $10,000 to educate a single student and that parent opts for non-public school, then $1,000 in federal dollars would follow that student to the non-public school under this proposal.  In effect, it is sort of a voucher without being a voucher.  The philosophy is that the “student” will receive, through Title I funding, $1,000 and it makes little difference where that money goes.  This is a good idea.

The second part of the bill involves Coverdell ESAs, the only means of tax-free savings for K-12 educational expenses.  The bill would lift the limit on annual contributions to such accounts.  And to further aid K-12 students and parents, accounts for education established under Section 529 of the tax code would be applicable to K-12 parents/students.

Where the proposed law potentially gets into potential trouble is the definition of a “private school.”  The bill states: “(C) PRIVATE SCHOOL.—For purposes of this section, the term ‘private school’ includes any home school that meets the requirements of State law applicable to such home schools, whether or not such school is deemed a private school for purposes of State law.”.

This is where the confusion and accusations enter the discussion.  Some have argued that this definition of a private school for purposes of the bill brings homeschooling under that general umbrella of state regulation.  Once under the umbrella, the child schooled at home is subject to the state requirements for a “private school.”  Now it gets tricky because state laws about homeschooling vary from state to state.   The Texas homeschooling laws are very lenient and spell out broad guidelines.  New York, on the other hand, subject the child schooled at home to rigorous benchmarks based on “grade,” reporting procedures, and curriculum guidelines, as well as state standardized tests.

S. 306 would leave those items to the state, which is a good thing.  K-12 education rightfully belongs at that level.  However, the problem is that at the state level they could conceivably force a particular curriculum by stealth means upon the child schooled at home.  There is no doubt that if Title I funds are made portable, states will require some form of accountability for diversion of those funds.  Accountability at the public school level is rather easy to assess, but less so in the homeschooling context.  Suppose you are a homeschooled student in New York required to take a standardized test just as the public school child is required.  The tests are reflective of the state curriculum and standards they established.  Thus, deviation from that curriculum and those standards could potentially put the homeschooled student at a disadvantage- unless they follow the state standards and curriculum to the letter- and their failure to pass such test could be used as justification for greater intrusion by the state into the home setting.

I cannot speak for every state, but the New Jersey curriculum at all grade levels is very, very specific.  They state that at a certain grade level, X,Y and Z must be taught and mastered.  The many tests are designed to gauge proficiency in those areas not only throughout the school year, but with standardized tests.  Unfortunately, Christie adopted Common Core and the entire curriculum is geared towards that and the accompanying PARCC testing regimen.  Despite his disavowal of Common Core, it is very much alive and well in New Jersey.  Thus, for the parent who opts for homeschooling in New Jersey, it would be best for them to also adopt Common Core if they hope their child will show success on the tests.

And that is the fear I suspect among some homeschooling advocates with respect to S. 306.  With federal funding usually comes federal strings attached.  If those funds are made portable, then the fear is that those strings will reach into the home.  This writer is quite sure that states with governments which respect homeschooling as an option (for example, Texas) would not place any strings.  But, we cannot say that about every state (for example, New York) and that is a fear.  Although S. 306 is silent about accountability mandates, states will likely establish their own at some point.  However, the wording of the bill seems to discourage that.

As for the Coverdell or Section 529 aspects, there should be no criticism over this aspect of the law.  Payment for qualified educational expenses like textbooks, software and supplies should receive some aid through Coverdell ESAs.  The current restrictions are onerous and do not meet the needs of some students schooled at home, especially those with disabilities.  Provided there is accountability in the disbursement of funds for “qualified educational expenses” to avoid gaming the tax code, this idea is a good one.

Overall, S. 306 as written is a good law that will help students and parents who opt for homeschooling as a viable option to failing public schools or expensive private schools.  Provided the onerous mandates do not follow the funding, there is nothing wrong with S. 306.   The only fear is the law of unintended consequences.  But at this stage, the accusations thrown at Cruz by others are scare tactics based on hypotheticals to tarnish the candidate.  They are no better than 9/11 conspiracy theories, birther accusations, misinformation about the term “natural born citizen,” misunderstanding of the term “birthright citizenship,” stories of thousands of Muslims in Jersey City partying in the streets when the World Trade Center came down and accusations of stolen votes in Iowa.  Considering that the Trumpettes walk goose-step along with their leader, is it any wonder they do not know how to read a bill, let alone find it or interpret it?