Texas governor pushes for decision on school choice
Lawmakers consider a proposal for education savings accounts
Texas’ lawmakers and governor have less than a week to adopt a major education funding bill to boost school choice. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Legislature to prioritize passing school choice reforms by the end of its special session on Nov. 7.
Texans are divided over allowing families to access public funds for private school tuition. Some express optimism, citing benefits such as more personalized educational options and more opportunity for underprivileged students. Others raise concerns about increased taxes or funding directed away from public schools.
Last month, the state Senate passed school choice legislation for the fourth time since Abbott took office in 2015. Each of three earlier bills failed to pass in the House. The latest Senate bill proposes introducing education savings accounts, which allocate tax dollars to students who opt out of traditional public schools. Parents, with oversight, can put money from the ESAs toward costs such as private school tuition, trade school training, and school material and curricula.
On Tuesday, Abbott announced that he and House leadership had reached an agreement on a proposal that would allow Texas students to access about $10,400 through ESAs each year. The bill would also increase teacher pay and replace the state’s current standardized test. But the House ended its work week without taking action on the bill, and it’s unclear whether it will take up the matter again before the session ends.
Some legislators and educators say that school choice legislation will put public schools in a worse financial position. Adrian Reyna, executive vice president of San Antonio Alliance, a teachers union, told local reporters, “Why do we need to siphon off millions of dollars to bolster a two-tiered education system when, quite honestly, private schools don’t have to play by the same rules?”
But where school choice policies are in place across the nation, public schools haven’t suffered, said Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week. Many people are still happy with their local public schools even as others choose an alternative, and public school funding continues to increase.
Texas spent more than $15,700 per student in 2021-22, per Texas Education Agency data, said Mandy Drogin, who works at the Texas Public Policy Foundation as campaign director for Next Generation Texas. According to the foundation, Texas has increased per-pupil funding by 166 percent, adjusted for inflation, while only increasing teacher pay by 16 percent, also adjusted for inflation, since 1970. Yet nearly half of Texas students in third through eighth grade read below grade level, according to state test scores released in August.
“They find ways to spend money on everything other than kids in the classroom,” Drogin said. “As a public school parent, I’m tired of it.”
Advocates for school choice stress the positive effect of parental choice on education. Drogin said the policy is not a zero-sum game. Instead, it is a “win-win” for everyone, including public schools. If a school loses a student due to ESAs, it motivates administrators to improve.
“We can acknowledge there are some issues that need to be corrected in our public education system,” Drogin said. “We should be helping every single student, including those in the public school, and incentivizing the public schools to get better.”
“If a parent decides to exercise their choice, for whatever reason it is, the great news is that a lot of the money … actually stays behind in the public school,” Drogin said. According to The Texas Tribune, Republican Brandon Creighton, the author of the Senate bill, said that the ESA program would be funded through general revenue, not the funding arm that largely supplies public education money.
Robert Elder, an associate professor of history at Baylor University, sends his oldest child to private school while his younger children are homeschooled. He said school choice laws would have a net positive effect, but if the standardized testing is inflexible, it could undermine the purpose of school choice.
“Part of the whole idea behind school choice and vouchers and those sorts of things is to get away from this model of a one-size-fits-all sort of education, which is what the entire testing—I would say most testing regimens—are set up to do,” Elder said. Standardized testing “runs counter to the whole purpose of school choice and vouchers,” he added.
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