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What's at stake in the Texas school voucher debate

Students with clear backpacks walk down a hallway
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
The Texas Legislature is considering a bill that would allow the state to deposit $8,000 annually into a child’s education savings account for the family to choose where the child goes to school.

There are three terms coming up over and over again this legislative session: school choice, school vouchers and education savings accounts. They're all related to the goal of giving families state money to send their kids to nonpublic schools.

One of the first steps to understanding the debate over this issue is getting a handle on what each term means.

A primer on terminology

School choice
 
This might seem like a cop out, but school choice actually has a couple different meanings. Public education advocates say families already have school choice because they can typically choose which campus to send their kids to within their local school district. Another choice families have in Texas is applying to enter charter schools. But, for the purposes of the state Legislature, school choice refers to programs that give families the option to use taxpayer money to pay for private school or other alternatives to public education.

School vouchers
 
The definition for school vouchers may sound pretty familiar: vouchers allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their kids to nonpublic schools.

“Instead of tax money going to the public schools to support public education, the parent is able to use that funding for their child to subsidize private education,” David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the UT College of Education, said.

More than 30 other states have school voucher programs. Some of those programs are small, while others — like those in Florida and Arizona — are much larger.

Education savings accounts

When Gov. Greg Abbott expressed support for school choice during his State of the State address in February, he did not mention the term “school voucher.” Instead, he used the term “education savings account.” But here’s the deal: An education savings account is a voucher.

DeMatthews said he thinks using the term “education savings account” is a marketing strategy.

“Ultimately a voucher – whether it's a scholarship to a private school or whether it's money that gets deposited in a bank account that parents can only use either for private school tuition or for some sort of tutoring – it's a voucher,” he said.

Legislation that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is backing, Senate Bill 8, would allow the state to deposit $8,000 annually into a child’s education savings account.

Priorities for Texans

School vouchers, education savings accounts and other types of school choice legislation are not top of mind for Texas voters, according to a University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll published in February.

The main concern for the 1,200 registered voters who were surveyed was school safety; 29% of respondents said that should be the Legislature’s priority regarding K-12 education. Twenty-one percent said lawmakers should focus on teacher pay and retention, 17% said their top priority was curriculum content and 9% said lawmakers should focus on parental rights. Just 8% of respondents said vouchers, educational savings accounts, or some other school choice legislation, should be lawmakers’ primary K-12 issue.

Unsurprisingly, the director of the Texas Politics Project said, there is more support for school vouchers among Republicans than Democrats.

“But it wasn't setting the woods on fire, if you will, among Republicans,” Jim Henson said. "[School vouchers] was the top choice of only 14% of Republicans, and it ranked fourth among the priorities that we offered people.”

Even though school vouchers may not be a top priority for the Republican voters who participated in the poll, it does not mean they oppose them. Nearly 60% said it's OK to redirect state tax revenue to help families pay for the cost of sending their kids to private or parochial schools.

“I suspect the calculation of the [Republican] leadership is that even if it's not something that a broad base of Texans is clamoring for, that if they deliver it, they won't be punished – at least not in the short term, particularly because their base supports it,” he said.

Fifty-seven percent of Democrats oppose giving families public money to help pay for private education. The poll was conducted from Feb. 10 to Feb. 21, and the margin of error is +/- 2.83%.

Meanwhile, 61% of respondents to a survey conducted by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs in January said they support a policy to give low-income parents vouchers to help pay to send their kids to private or religious schools. Support for voucher programs dropped to 53% if they were made available to all parents, regardless of income.

In both cases, when support for voucher programs is broken down by race/ethnicity, at least 50% of white Texans, more than half of Latino Texans, and more than 60% of Black Texans support school vouchers.

Support for school vouchers

Michael Barba said it was encouraging to see that Gov. Abbott named school choice as one of his seven emergency items for the Legislature during his State of the State address in February. The policy director of K-12 Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the COVID-19 pandemic has infused new life into the push for school vouchers in the state.

“During COVID, parents saw what their kids were learning, and they were frustrated by that, either because the education was not the quality that they expected or because it wasn't aligned with their family values,” he said.

Barba said education savings accounts empower parents to meet their child’s educational needs. He also pushed back on opponents’ concerns that private schools do not face the same accountability measures as the public school system.

“Accountability is not just a report that says most of our kids are behind. Accountability involves moving people, time and money to the place where they can most benefit our children. That is true accountability,” he said. “And to achieve true accountability, parents need to be in the driver's seat.”

People wearing yellow scarfs hold signs in support of school choice.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
Demonstrators from around Texas rally in support of "National School Choice Week" at the state Capitol in 2017.

Barba said the Texas Public Policy Foundation also recommends students take assessments annually and for independent researchers to publish the results to show whether education savings account participants are seeing better educational outcomes.

Laura Colangelo, the executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said she also wants to assuage concerns about academic accountability outside the state-regulated public education system. She said her group supports only those bills that require private schools to be accredited.

“Accreditation is a very robust program. They look at all areas of the school curriculum, finance, facilities [and] governance,” she said.

Colangelo expects that even if school vouchers become available that most families will stick with their local public schools because they’re happy with them.

“But there are some families that just need another option for many different reasons,” she said. “And this is going to change the lives of those students and those families who just need something else that their local public school isn't offering at this point.”

More than 100,000 spots are currently open at Texas private schools, according to Colangelo. She said the median tuition for private school statewide is $9,831. That means half of Texas private schools cost less than $9,831 and the other half cost more. School vouchers will help more families afford private schools, she said.

“I think it would be life-changing for those students and those families,” she said.

One bill that's been filed would give families $8,000 in state money for private schools.

Opposition to school vouchers

One of the key concerns for school voucher opponents is that school choice programs divert taxpayer money from public schools. Even though Abbott has claimed the introduction of education savings accounts will not impact public school funding, DeMatthews disagrees.

“I think it's really disingenuous for anybody to say that a voucher program that literally takes money out of public schools is not going to impact funding," he said. "I think that's just ridiculous."

Texas already lags behind the vast majority of states when it comes to public education funding. Texas spends about $3,300 less per student when compared with the national average, according to a new reportfrom the Texas American Federation of Teachers and Every Texan, a progressive think tank.

"We're $7,500 below the average when it comes to teacher pay. And so we have a long way to go in our funding structure,” said Bob Popinski, senior director of policy at Raise Your Hand Texas.

Local educators and school districts are also urging the state Legislature to raise per-student funding to keep up with inflation. The last increase was in 2019.

“Texas already has a public school funding problem. There's been several times in the past where there's been massive cuts to education that we're still recovering from,” DeMatthews said. “There are shortages of teachers, of school counselors that are not being focused on here.”

“This is an anti-civil rights bill because it's using taxpayer money to discriminate against low-income children and children with disabilities who are more costly to educate."

David DeMatthews, associate professor in the UT College of Education

DeMatthews said fully funding public schools – not subsidizing private education – should be a top priority for the Legislature. He also noted that a Texas Education Agency deputy commissioner, in secretly recorded audio, said school vouchers could hurt public education funding.

“I think folks are really clear that this is going to hurt public schools. They just don't want to say it because there's a lot of campaign contributions. There's a lot of outside money pushing vouchers across the country," he said. "And so folks just aren't being honest."

Another concern for opponents is that private schools can turn students away or kick them out.

“Public schools are required to accept every student, whether they have special needs, whether they have disciplinary problems. And private schools don't have to do that," Popinski said. "And that is a big problem with voucher programs."

DeMatthews argued that ultimately, school voucher programs are discriminatory.

“This is an anti-civil rights bill because it's using taxpayer money to discriminate against low-income children and children with disabilities who are more costly to educate,” he said. “And we shouldn't be using taxpayer money to create that sort of system.”

DeMatthews and Popinski also point to research that finds students who participate in school voucher programs in other states do not have better educational outcomes.

“Vouchers across the country have proven not to actually improve student academics and student performance,” Popinski said. “There are private schools that are doing an incredible job out there, and these are private schools that don't have enough seats for these kids.”

Researchers at the pro-voucher Fordham Institute evaluated the impact of a school voucher program in Ohio. One of its key findings was that “students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse on state exams compared to their closely matched peers remaining in public schools.”

DeMatthews blasts Texas Republicans for wanting to push a system that has not been proved to improve student performance and lacks significant government oversight.

“There's not two sides of this story,” he said. “This is a scam taking taxpayer money and handing it over to private schools and really to a lot of wealthy parents who don't need that support in the first place.”

A priority school choice bill

Both Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick have made school choice legislation a priority this session. State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) filed a school voucher bill last week, Senate Bill 8, that Patrick supports.

The sweeping legislation would give parents $8,000 in an education savings account to send their kids to private schools or pay for private tutors and therapists. The bill also appears to try to head off opposition from rural Republicans. It includes a provision to give school districts with fewer than 20,000 students money for any children who take advantage of an education savings account during the first two years of the program. SB 8 also allows any money remaining in a child’s education savings account at the end of the fiscal year to roll over into the next year.

“Educating the next generation of Texans is the most fundamental responsibility we have, and I authored Senate Bill 8 to place parents, not government, squarely in the center of the decisions for their children,” Sen. Creighton said in a statement announcing the legislation.

But the bill is not limited to launching an education savings account program. It would also restrict instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in pre-K through 12th grade in “a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” The language is nearly identical to a controversial Florida measure that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Law.”

At this point, SB 8 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education, which Creighton chairs.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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