Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has reintroduced legislation that would expand school choice options in Washington, D.C., and make students in the district eligible to open educational savings accounts.
The Educational Freedom Accounts Act is part of Cruz's school choice push, a topic he has consistently backed since his 2012 election to the Senate. He calls it the "civil rights issue of the 21st century."
"The District of Columbia has consistently had the highest or near the highest per pupil spending in the nation, but the D.C. schools have consistently underperformed. There are thousands upon thousands of kids who are being left behind," Cruz said of D.C. schools, which fall under congressional jurisdiction. "I believe that as Americans we have a moral obligation to our kids, that every child in American deserves access to a quality education. I believe school choice is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.
"Educational savings accounts [ESAs] have proven tremendously effective in improving the outcomes for kids," Cruz said. "We ought to be fighting to ensure that the students in D.C. have real and meaningful opportunities to learn and succeed."
The bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would fund ESAs at 80 to 90 percent of the cost that would have been spent to educate each child at D.C. public schools per year. The parents would be allowed to spend on educational needs as they see fit, including for private school tuition, textbooks, and tutoring. Families would have to enroll in the program, but all would be eligible.
Cruz argues that the legislation would greatly benefit low-income individuals, along with African-American and Hispanic children who are "trapped in failing schools." He originally introduced the bill last year. No new money would be spent, rather the accounts would be funded by shifting existing education dollars.
While ESAs are relatively new, they have been growing in frequency at the state level in recent years. After Arizona and a host of other states introduced them on a limited basis, Nevada became the first state to adopt a universal statewide ESA program, although it was kneecapped this year after a state budget deal between Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democratic majorities in the state senate and assembly failed to fund the program. As of now, six states have ESA programs.
The bill is part of Cruz's larger push for school choice, which includes the CHOICE Act, a bill introduced and reintroduced by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., to give D.C. students the opportunity to enroll in school choice programs. Cruz also included an amendment in the tax reform package that expands tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans to K-12 public and private schools.
The amendment was included after Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate hours before final passage of the tax package. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., initially voted for Cruz's measure, giving the amendment 51 votes, but changed his vote in the face of Democratic backlash and forced Pence to make the trip to the Capitol in the wee hours of the night.
"I think it is fair to anticipate that the Democrats in the Senate would filibuster any effort to expand school choice in D.C.," Cruz said, adding that "it does not bode well" for the legislation that all 48 Democrats voted against his amendment to the tax reform package.
"Today's partisan Democratic Party is unwilling to consider any reforms expanding parental choice or student choice," Cruz said.
The Texas senator said that enthusiasm for the bill has come from House conservatives and a few of his Senate colleagues. He also said he has had "multiple communications" with the Trump administration about the proposal on the staff level.