If there is one thing that we can all agree on about Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), it is that he is a staunch advocate of state rights and local control. He's released reports documenting what he refers to as the Obama Administration's "assault" on state sovereignty. He's vowed to "break apart the federal leviathan that has ruled Washington" by getting rid of the IRS, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And he has argued that the true savings of these cuts go beyond numbers--his plan to rein in Washington is about "uprooting the centralized power that we have lived under for far too long" in order to restore state sovereignty and local control.
But his belief in local control over local affairs clearly does not extend to those who actually live in Washington, D.C. When it comes to using his own federal power to control and dismantle D.C.'s local laws, he is perfectly happy to intervene.
Last year, Cruz introduced measures in Congress challenging two of D.C.'s local laws, one of which prevents employers from discriminating against women for their reproductive choices and another which requires religiously affiliated educational institutions to comply with the city's gay nondiscrimination laws.
This week, Cruz introduced the Educational Freedom Accounts Act (S. 2455) which would allow parents to pull their child from public school and have access to taxpayer-funded accounts for private education expenses, equal to the amount D.C. Public Schools normally spends per pupil and taken directly from DCPS's funding.
Cruz's bill is based on Nevada's Education Savings Account (ESA) program, which diverts about $5,000 per student enrolled in the program from public school budgets and places that money into parent-controlled accounts to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling, virtual-learning programs, tutors and other qualifying expenses. Though proponents of the program have argued that low-income students will be the main beneficiaries of ESAs, The Las Vegas Review-Journal found that the vast majority of applicants to the program were from wealthy neighborhoods, with only nine applications coming from students living in the poorest neighborhoods in the state. The Nevada ESA program was slated to go into effect on January 1, 2016, but a district judge recently put the program on hold. In his 16-page ruling, Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson sided with opponents who argued in their complaint that the law would drain public schools of essential resources in violation of the constitution and provide a "windfall" to those that can already afford to send their children to private schools.
Prior to the ruling, Nevada's treasury established more than 4,000 education savings accounts, which amounts to more than $20 million dollars that was set to be diverted from public schools over the course of the school year. In D.C., where school spending per pupil is much higher than in Nevada, the loss of funding that public schools might suffer under such a program could do incredible damage. If 4,000 D.C. parents pulled their students from public school and took the money DCPS spends on average per pupil with them ($17,953 in fiscal year 2013 according to US census data), public schools in D.C. would lose over $70 million dollars. That kind of a loss could effectively cripple the entire school system.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is calling Senator Cruz out on his hypocrisy and vowing to "go all out" to ensure that this latest attack on D.C.'s local laws goes nowhere.
"Senator Cruz's bill is one of the most radical and blatant attacks on D.C. home rule and local control that we have witnessed, showing how easily his ambitions for the presidency allow him to dump his self-proclaimed principles of local control over local affairs," Norton said.
"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."
Congress has always had a weird obsession with D.C. school vouchers, but previous school choice initiatives, such as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, relied on federal dollars. Though the current voucher program has its problems--many students attend schools that are unaccredited and there is no conclusive evidence that the program boosts student achievement--at least that program did not directly undermine D.C. public schools by stripping them of their funding. With this bill, Cruz is not just using D.C. as a testing ground for a new school choice initiative. Given the magnitude of damage such a program could do in a school system the size of DCPS, it seems as if Cruz is actively trying to destroy public schools in the district altogether.