School choice trouble in Texas
State lawmakers vote overwhelmingly to block any effort to use tax money for private schools
Texas is one of 19 states considering legislation to create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) this year. Stephanie Matthews, senior education policy adviser for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, started the current legislative session optimistic over the chances of passing a universal ESA program, one open to all students. Now, though, entrenched political infighting has obliterated much of that hope.
Last week, House lawmakers voted 103-44 to block any effort to use state education funds to pay for private schools. The vote, part of an amendment to the state budget, dealt a severe blow to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made school choice one of his top priorities. The Senate passed a slimmed down version of a universal ESA bill in late March, but it appears to stand no chance in the House, where public school support remains strong.
Only a united conservative front could beat lobbying by the National Education Association against school choice measures, but unity has been fleeting. William Estrada, director of federal relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), strongly opposed the measure. He says homeschoolers’ educational freedom will disappear if they take government money: It only takes one instance of abuse for a lawmaker to insist homeschoolers need more regulation and government oversight, all in the name of protecting the public purse.
The Texas legislative session, held only once every two years, won’t end until May 29, so ESA supporters aren’t yet out of time to win over opponents.
But that won’t be easy, the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke acknowledges. New support for school choice from the Trump administration seems to have galvanized teachers unions and others who insist public schools need more money, not more competition. Burke believes school choice advocates can make inroads with public school supporters by emphasizing ESAs as a different way to deliver education funding, not a method for siphoning it away from local classrooms. Teachers might reconsider their opposition once they realize ESA funds could open opportunities for them to teach classes online, supplementing their income.
As for claims ESAs lack accountability, Burke notes decades of attempts to hold public school systems accountable have done nothing to improve outcomes or hold educators responsible for student success. Nor has more money made much difference. Since the 1970s, U.S. education spending has risen by nearly 200 percent while scores in reading and math have remained flat.
“If only public schools were as accountable as private schools, where parents who are dissatisfied can leave,” Burke lamented.
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