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Education

Q&A: Texas Legislature to Tackle School Vouchers

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The 2015 legislative session is upon us. And while there haven’t been any committee hearings or votes yet, lawmakers are already beating the drum on a variety of issues. When it comes to education, conservative lawmakers, including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, are already talking about the idea of school choice for all Texas students.

“Not just the wealthy who can send their children to private school, and not just those who have the mobility to move to the suburbs," Patrick said last week.  "But for parents in the inner cities where their children are trapped in failing schools, it is their right to have those same opportunities.”

Patrick thinks one solution is school vouchers.  But what are school vouchers? KUT's Kate McGee and Nathan Bernier break down the issue:

Read the interview:

Nathan Bernier: What are school vouchers? How do they work?

Kate McGee:  School vouchers are a program where the state will pay for a student to attend a private school rather than a public school. Right now states give a certain amount of money to a school district per student to educate that student. But under voucher programs, that money would follow the student to whichever private school that student decides to attend if they decide that they don’t want to attend their public school.

And the programs differ depending on the state, sometimes the parents receive a tax credit for the cost of the private school. And usually that tax credit is not enough to pay for the entire cost of private school, so parents would have to pay the rest of that tuition themselves. But the idea is that it’s given parents a choice of where they want to send their kids to school.

NB: So what is the proposal in Texas right now?

KM: Senator Donna Campbell has already filed a bill that would reimburse parents up to 60 percent of whatever the state determines it costs to educate each individual student, because that number changes. Let’s say it costs $10,000 to educate a student per year. If his parents send their child to a private school under this program, they would receive $6,000, and then the state would keep $4,000, so the state would look at it as a savings of $4,000. A similar bill was filed in the last session, in 2013, but it didn’t make it out of committee. And during that session, the average tuition subsidy for parents would’ve been about $5,000.

NB: So in what circumstances would you see parents deciding to use these vouchers?

KM: They’re mostly used for students in schools that have failed state standards. Students with disabilities can sometimes get vouchers, or students in the foster care system. This program that Sen. Campbell wants would be for any student.

NB: Could a parent send their kid to any private school of their choosing with this voucher?

KM: Under the bill that was filed already, Sen. Campbell says that the school has to be accredited by the state. Other than that, there’s really no requirements. There’s actually been some debate about whether parents should be able to use state dollars and enroll their child in a religious or parochial school. There’s been law suits in various states about that issue, but in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that a voucher system in Ohio was constitutional because students could choose to go to other private schools besides parochial schools, they weren’t forced into religious schools.

NB: What are some other reasons people support school vouchers?

KM: One reason is the savings. When this bill was proposed in 2013, the legislative budget board estimated it would save the state more than a billion dollars in the first five years. Plus, supporters say once struggling schools start to lose students, it will force them to improve. So it’s not just savings, but it’s also a competition argument. If you’re creating competition for public schools, they’ll have to improve, because they’ll have to have a way to keep their students from leaving.

NB: I imagine not everyone agrees with that concept.

KM: Right. Many opponents tend to disagree with many school reform ideas, like vouchers or charters or other people or corporations, private schools, religious schools, coming in and deciding, ‘Let’s send these kids to private schools, or charter schools,' instead of coming in and trying to fix these struggling schools these kids are in in the first place. Plus, private schools aren’t required to test their students. There are some issues of accountability, and then there are also financial concerns for the school districts, which these students are leaving. When the legislative budget board reviewed that 2013 bill, it also predicted that vouchers could hurt some school districts in Texas that would lose more students than other districts. And that would significantly reduce the amount of money they receive from the state to educate students.

NB: Have opponents to vouchers filed any legislation or done anything to stop this from happening?

KM: The Texas State Teachers’ Association is currently preparing something they’re calling “community schools legislation.” I imagine that’s a phrase we’ll hear a lot in this session. It promotes this idea that parents, teachers, nonprofits should help run and improve their neighborhood schools, so it’s all about creating a community around the school to make sure the school is doing well.

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