Saturday, February 6, 2016
Media Source: 
Citizen-Times
Author: 
Mark Barrett

Eleventh District U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows has filed a bill to allow parents to get most of Washington, D.C., schools' revenue in the form of vouchers to be spent at any school they want.

But the district's representative in the House, Democratic U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, says it "violates (Meadows') own tea party principles" favoring local control over local issues and promises to fight its passage.

Meadows, a Jackson County Republican, last week introduced a bill that would direct district government to turn over to parents who request it 80 to 90 percent of the per pupil amount it spends on schools to pay for school tuition, tutoring, and supplies or, subject to limits, a college savings account or transportation to school. It is the same measure that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican Meadows has endorsed for president, offered in the Senate in January.

Meadows chairs a House subcommittee that has oversight responsibility for district affairs and he says he wants Washington parents to have more ability to choose the best education for their children.

He said it is appropriate for Congress to write the rules for district schools "because the American taxpayer has partial responsibility for funding District of Columbia operations. It puts an additional burden on us to make sure that those financial decisions are made in the interest of students here in D.C."

Norton said in an interview that it's wrong for Meadows to impose a voucher plan on district residents.

"What we don't respect is (Meadows) pasting his view on a school district that has no way to hold him accountable," Norton said.

"You can't tell a district how to spend its local money, especially on the education of its children," she said. She rhetorically asked a reporter, "Do you really think your congressman ought to be spending time meddling in our district?"

District schools have had a shaky reputation in the past, but Norton and district officials say schools have improved markedly in recent years. The district's fourth grade reading and math scores on tests given across the nation moved from last or nearly last among large urban school systems to the middle of the pack from 2007 to 2015.

The head of a group of city school systems to call D.C. Public Schools "the nation’s fastest-improving urban school district" last year.

However, the percent of fourth and eighth graders scoring at or above proficient in reading and math last year ranged from 17 to 33 percent, depending on the subject and grade. The averages nationwide were from 33 to 40 percent.

Norton said about half of district schoolchildren attend charter schools and district children have more choices of schools than do children in any House Republican's district.

The question of what share of D.C. Public Schools' budget is funded by the federal government is difficult to answer definitively. The district's proposed overall budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year projected that about 25 percent of revenues would come from the federal government, but part of that is in the form of Medicaid payments, which the federal government also helps fund in the states.

D.C. Public Schools' projected budget says 5.8 percent of its revenue would come directly from the federal government, 82 percent from local funds and the rest from other sources.

Schools across the country get federal money. A little more than 10 percent of Buncombe County schools' current expense budget in 2014-15 came from the U.S. government and about 12 percent of public expenditures statewide did.

Norton said she thinks Meadows' bill "is a political gesture in deference to Ted Cruz" and that she is tired of Republican presidential politics impinging on local affairs in the heavily Democratic district.

Cruz, GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, who dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination last week, each introduced bills to roll back the district's strict gun laws last year. Cruz also introduced bills to strike down district laws on gays and lesbians and employees' reproductive health decisions.

Meadows said he does not expect his bill to pass this year but he wants to get the idea on Congress' agenda for 2017 and later. Congress is also expected to consider this year whether to renew a much smaller voucher program that had been funded with federal money but was left out of the current fiscal year budget.

He said he believes in "local control for my schools, local superintendents, local teachers and principals making the best decisions."

However in this case, Meadows said, "We're not talking about Indiana or Nebraska, we're talking about D.C., which is not a state, which obviously is supported in some fashion by the federal taxpayer dollars."

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