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Chairman Smith Opening Statement – Hearing on Educational Freedom and Opportunity for American Families, Students, and Workers

October 25, 2023

As prepared for delivery.

“Parents today have serious concerns about their children’s access to affordable, quality education. The demand from parents to improve their school options is real, and it is easy to understand why.

“After all, kids are not learning at the pace they should be. ACT scores, for example, are at the lowest levels in 32 years, with the lowest-performing students testing at levels last seen over 40 years ago. Math scores have seen their biggest decline in 50 years. And in too many cases, what kids are being taught has more to do with a political agenda than reading, writing, or math.

“Parents all over the country have said ‘Enough’ and are voting with their feet. Private school enrollment has grown 55 percent. Home school has grown 30 percent. The first full school year after COVID, charter schools saw an influx of 240,000 new students.

“Congress should be listening to parents and helping reduce the financial barriers blocking them from taking full charge of their children’s education. One approach is expanding 529 accounts – which have a successful track record – to empower parents to make the educational choice that best fits their kids’ needs.

“In 2017, Republicans took the first step and allowed 529 accounts to cover K-12 education tuition up to $10,000. But 529 accounts could also be amended to cover other educational costs like books, tutoring to help kids catch up after multiple years of forced virtual school, educational therapies for students with disabilities, and supplies for the many families now choosing to homeschool.

“These 529 accounts could also help address America’s skilled labor shortage by expanding to cover skilled trade or licensing programs. By 2030, America will have a skilled labor shortage of over 2 million. This issue has come up again and again at our field hearings and when the Committee considered an FAA extension earlier this year.

“Artificial intelligence cannot fix an air conditioner, repair a car, or put plumbing in a house. America needs more skilled labor. Helping more students learn a trade or skill will put them on a path to financial well-being and help small businesses find the labor they need.

“To be clear, these are good paying jobs, and students and parents need more options. Our more traditional four-year colleges and universities have a long history of hiking tuition rates and saddling families with debt.

“Moreover, these institutions regularly show themselves to be unhealthy environments. Look no farther than the indefensible behavior we have seen in the past few weeks by professors and college administrators in refusing to condemn the repulsive views expressed by some students and professors defending and championing the Hamas terrorists who ruthlessly murdered over a thousand Israelis. These and other actions raise the question of whether such institutions serve the public good in a way that merits all of the special provisions they currently enjoy. From the 501(c) tax-exempt status of the colleges themselves to favorable treatment of their multi-billion-dollar endowments, this Committee should consider ways to hold these institutions accountable.

“Between the soaring cost of college and schools’ increasing rejection of shared values, is it any wonder why parents and students might want to look elsewhere for an education?

“In addition to 529 accounts, this committee should also look at what other types of solutions might exist to expand student access to more education choices and give parents more affordable options for their children to get a quality education.

“We know Democrats will trot out tired talking points about how this is a smokescreen for helping the wealthy. I would ask my Democrat colleagues – why would we deny families a shot at a better life?

“I would also note that an expansion of 529 accounts to cover additional K-12 educational expenses and homeschooling expenses was included in the bipartisan SECURE Act that was reported unanimously out of the Ways and Means Committee in 2019. But sadly, when it came time for the House to consider and pass the SECURE Act, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrat leadership pulled those bipartisan provisions out of the bill.

“Right now, we have an entire generation of students facing a bleaker future because of the school they attend. Washington has to recognize what families already know – the status quo is not working for many children in this country. I look forward to finding solutions that put parents in charge of their kid’s future.”