Once again, education barely came up in the GOP debate Saturday night, save when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bragged about his battles with teachers unions and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz blasted President Obama for “abusing executive power using Race to the Top funds in the Department of Education to force [the Common Core standards] in the states.” (Race to the Top ended last year, but who’s counting?)
But Cruz has other K–12 schemes beyond the now-tired call to “end Common Core at the federal level” (impossible of course, since Common Core has never been a federal program). The Washington Post reported Friday that Cruz has introduced the Education Freedoms Account Act, a bill “to expand school choice in the District of Columbia”—a municipality, by the way, which already has a lot of school choice, with 44 percent of students in charter schools.
That’s one of the highest percentages in the country, but it’s not enough for Cruz, who in a news release said he considers school choice to be the “civil rights issue of our era.” His bill, the Education Freedoms Account Act, would force public schools to give the per-pupil allocation of about $9,500 to families who prefer to send their kids to private schools.* Democrats have traditionally opposed these programs, which take taxpayer money away from public schools and give them to private, and often religious, institutions with no regulatory strings attached.
Unlike the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which since 2004 has used federal money to fund “scholarships” for low-income students at private schools (80 percent of which are religious) in the District, Cruz’s bill—and its companion bill in the House, which is sponsored by North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows—would take the funds from the District’s own coffers. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, was not impressed with this proposal, which she called “private school vouchers on steroids,” and a violation of D.C. home rule. She said in a statement:
Who is Ted Cruz to tell the D.C. government how to spend their own taxpayer funds on education, a great priority in this city? It is one thing for the federal government to meddle with D.C.’s local affairs and set up a private school voucher program with federal funds; it is quite another to force a local jurisdiction to use its own finite funds to pay for an unaccountable voucher program, taking away funding from our traditional public schools and public charter schools.
Who is Ted Cruz indeed? Isn’t the Texas senator’s whole shtick—well, one of his many shticks—smaller government and local control? “We should shrink the size and power of the federal government by every and any means possible,” he claims all over his website. He evidently cares so much about the underprivileged youth of D.C. that he wants to use his Senate seat to dictate how we helpless District residents use our taxpayer money on education. And it’s not even the first time the freshman senator has tried to intervene in local D.C. affairs, but then our nation’s capital has long been a favorite playground for Republican legislators to experiment with new policy ideas, their professed love of small government notwithstanding.
As usual, no one in D.C. seems all that grateful for Cruz’s concern: One council member called the bill “ridiculous and insulting to the residents of the District of Columbia,” while a spokesman for the mayor commented wryly, “I thought Senator Cruz was running for president, not a seat on the D.C. Council,” according to the Post.
Cruz’s voucher gambit is unlikely to go anywhere, but it stands as another depressing example of how screwed we in the District of Columbia are when it comes to self-governance: Along with a lack of representation in Congress, we are apparently also without a formal government mechanism to tell Ted Cruz to shove it. Can’t someone with a vote introduce a resolution to that effect?
Correction, Feb. 8, 2016: A typo in the original blog posted stated that the vouchers would be for approximately $9,5000. The correct figure is $9,500.