AU and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: This Year’s Fight Had a Few Surprises

In our last update on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), we asked all of our members and supporters to reach out to their legislators and tell them to reject any amendment that would create private school vouchers. Thanks in large part to that effort, we won the private school voucher fight! However, we ended up with a very different church-state fight on the floor.

Private School Vouchers - A Win

This year’s voucher fight in ESEA has not been quite the same as in years past. While we generally oppose private school vouchers, this year vouchers took the form of Title I portability. Title I portability is especially problematic because it allows Title I money, which is federal funding designated for public schools serving high concentrations of students in poverty, to instead “follow the child” to a attend a different school. Not only does this completely undermine the intent of Title I, which is to provide school-wide programs to schools that need them the most, but it also creates a vehicle for private school vouchers.

As ESEA began to move through the House, we strongly urged members of the House to oppose portability and any additional private school voucher amendments.  Our members and activists played a big role in this fight, sending over 1,300 letters and making calls to express their opposition to vouchers.   

Both Rep. Messer (R-IN) and Rep. Yoho (R-FL) sought to offer a Title I voucher amendment on the floor. In the end, however, the House decided to not even consider a private school voucher amendment. Politico noted that after hearing from so many voices opposed to private school vouchers, it became clear to House leadership that an ESEA bill including private school vouchers could not pass.

The Inclusion of an Unnecessary Religious Freedom Amendment

Unfortunately, while the House Rules Committee did not include any voucher amendments, the committee did include an amendment from Rep. Flores (R-TX) to reinforce students’ and teachers’ “right to free exercise of religion” in public schools. This inclusion was likely a means of appeasing more conservative members after realizing that private school vouchers could not succeed.

Rep. Flores claimed that his amendment would not to lead to proselytization in public schools; however, it’s also unclear why such an amendment is necessary, aside from his reasoning that teachers should not be forbidden from saying Merry Christmas or passing out candy canes in school, which they already have the right to do.

But while his amendment is unnecessary, it’s also problematic for many reasons, most notably because it fails to provide sufficient protections under the Establishment Clause. Thankfully, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) spoke out against the amendment on the House floor, saying that “religious freedom means not only are students, teachers, and school administrators able to exercise their right to religion, but also that the students should be able to attend public schools free of unwarranted proselytization and coercion in the participation of religious activities.” The Flores amendment fails to make that distinction.

Stay Tuned

The future of the Flores amendment in ESEA is uncertain, as is the future of ESEA’s reauthorization, which has not yet been voted on by the full House. For the time being, we will continue to advocate against private school vouchers and for the separation of church and state as they come up.

Stay tuned for more updates on our legislative work in both the state and federal action centers.