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Tuesday, June 11, 2019 1:00 am

Banks gets scolding on voucher plan in DC

Delegate dismisses effort as Republican meddling

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

A colleague has chastised U.S. Rep. Jim Banks for introducing legislation that would create education vouchers in her district based on school safety risks.

Banks, R-3rd, filed a bill last month that would fund alternative education opportunities for students he said are “trapped in unsafe schools.” The legislation would affect only the Washington, D.C., school system, over which the federal government has authority.

Banks listed various safety risks that could qualify students for his Child Safety Account program: bullying, sexual harassment, gang activity, fights, shootings, suicide threats and attempts, drug use and food safety needs. The program would pay for tuition, textbooks, tutoring, transportation and therapy related to school safety threats.

Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting federal representative for the District of Columbia, has accused Banks of meddling in the affairs of her district and its schools.

“This is the second Republican bill introduced this Congress to try and force the District to switch funds from its public schools to pay for private school tuition,” Norton said last week in a statement. “Congress has repeatedly rejected private school vouchers nationally, yet Republicans, including Rep. Banks, hypocritically, have no problem imposing them on my district.”

In February, Norton similarly criticized Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., for introducing legislation that would establish a broad school voucher program in the District of Columbia. The District already has a federally funded school voucher program for low-income students, Norton noted last week. 

Norton said Banks “is trying to create a voucher program, apparently in service to a conservative think tank rather than his own constituents, under the guise of student safety, as if he were Mayor of the District, clearly without knowing anything about this city or its schools.”

Banks' bill has been endorsed by the Heartland Institute, which proposed Child Safety Accounts in 2018.

Asked to respond, Banks issued a statement Monday saying he “would expect her to know that Congress has jurisdiction over city operations” in Washington.

“States and territories are laboratories for national policy,” he said. “As the Indiana state legislature controls local affairs within my district, Washington, D.C. is the appropriate location for a pilot program given its diversity and expansive school network. Although Democrats like Congresswoman Norton prefer sweeping federal policies early and often, I prefer a more cautious route.”

Banks said his legislation “could serve as a model for a state like Indiana to ensure that every child has access to a safe and secure learning environment. It is disappointing that Congresswoman Norton would rather protect the status quo than ensure the safety of students.”

Banks also said his bill “specifies a number of ways the money can be spent aside from private tuition, including therapy, additional school supplies, and safety training.”

bfrancisco@jg.net