Close to Home: When choice for schools is not a good idea

“Choices in education. No hungry kids.” These ideas sound reasonable, right?

In fact, those two phrases are in the title of a bill introduced in the House of Representatives, HR 610, that is anything but reasonable. The so-called “vouchers bill” is so potentially damaging to public education and child nutrition that our Santa Rosa City Schools board on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution opposing HR 610.

Why would a local school board stand united against a federal bill?

HR 610 would repeal federal funding for education that has long gone to our neediest students and send it to states to fund not just public schools but also private, religious or home schools.

Here in Sonoma County, public schools received approximately $40.5 million from federal sources in 2015-16, or about 5 percent of overall general fund income. Although our districts get most of our funding from the state, that federal money is particularly important because it is earmarked for our most vulnerable students - low-income children, English learners and students with special needs.

Under HR 610, the $20 billion in federal education funding for 2017-18 would be distributed to qualified states, based on the number of school-aged children. States would have to guarantee that the money would be distributed equally per-pupil. It's doubtful California would qualify for money at all under this bill because our funding formula prioritizes high-needs students.

Even if each of the 50 million students in this country got a voucher, it would only amount to a few hundred dollars per student, not nearly enough to pay private school tuition.

The trouble with this bill is that it goes further than inadequate tuition dollars. HR 610 would move taxpayer dollars into private schools that can be operated by for-profit organizations that have no accountability to anyone. They don't have to meet state instructional requirements, be governed by elected boards or even hire certified, licensed teachers.

Studies of private and for-profit school voucher programs implemented in some states have found that students who use vouchers do not generally perform better academically than students attending public schools. The benefits are questionable. The harm to public education is undeniable.

The second part of this ill-advised bill, the “No Hungry Kids Act,” waters down nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs. It would repeal a rule requiring more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free milk in schools, and reduced levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans-fats in school meals.

Many of the children in our schools would go hungry if not for school meals. Shouldn't those meals be as healthy as possible?

The Santa Rosa City Schools board has resolved to continue to meet nutritional requirements for its students, regardless of the outcome of this bill.

Right now, HR 610 is in the Education and the Workforce Committee, and has not come to the House floor for a vote. Perhaps it won't ever get that far. But there is no doubt that this won't be the only challenge to public education and our neediest students.

When it comes to “choice,” I ask you to choose to stand with the Santa Rosa City Schools board in opposition to the vouchers bill.

Contact your federal elected officials, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris and Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and tell them you oppose HR 610.

Frank Pugh is a member of the Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Education.

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