The debate over whether Texas should expand private school choice with taxpayer-funded programs is likely to dominate the next session of the Legislature.
School choice advocates think the right type of program could transform the trajectory of students from low-income families in Fort Worth and the state. However, traditional public education supporters disagree and say vouchers or voucher-like programs would shrink an already tight pot of funding for schools.
Texas already has a form of school choice. Parents can decide to send their child to a traditional public school, charter school, private school or homeschool.
What lawmakers will debate is whether they should tap taxpayer funds to allow parents to send their children to a private school, said Gabriel Huddleston, an education professor at Texas Christian University.
In the past, public school advocates and rural lawmakers have formed a coalition to stop vouchers from passing in the Legislature. Most rural areas have a single choice for education: whatever their independent school district offers. Urban areas, like Fort Worth, have more private school options.
“You only have a choice as much as there are options,” Huddleston said.
How could choice be expanded?
The Texas Private School Association wants to see lawmakers create a limited education savings account program, one of three public policies the National Conference of State Legislatures considers as a way to expand private school choice.
Education savings accounts are state-funded grants deposited into a special account that they can use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks and more education-related expenses. Five states have education savings account programs.
Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private School Association, said her organization wants lawmakers to limit an education savings account program to only families who meet certain criteria, such as eligibility for a free or reduced lunch.
For example, qualifying families could receive $10,000 in their education savings account that they can then use to pay for private school for their student, Colangelo said. Another family also could use that money to help their special needs child and provide them with specialized tutoring, she said.
“There are a lot of different options, but the point is that the parents know the child best and know the kind of education that child needs,” Colangelo said. “They would have more flexibility and more options to choose the education that fits that particular child.”
Senate Bill 176 would create an education savings account program. State Sen.-elect Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, filed the legislation. The proposal would give parents about $10,000.
Colangelo also noted that the bill has accountability measures. Private schools will have to be accredited through an organization OK’d by the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission.
“They make sure that the schools are held to standards equivalent to or greater than those of public schools,” she said.
Two other proposals also were filed in the House. One measure would give tax credits to people who donate to private school funds, and the other would see parents receive a reimbursement from the state for private school tuition.
The most-talked-about private school choice expansion policy is vouchers. These are state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school, which have to meet certain standards to accept voucher recipients. Across the nation, 14 states have a voucher program.
Scholarship tax credits, one of the already introduced House bills, are available in 17 states. Most programs allow people and companies to use a portion of their taxes to be used as a donation to private school scholarship organizations.
Colangelo stressed her association does not want private schools to be seen as competition or a better alternative than public schools.
“We very much appreciate the Herculean task of educating the 5 million school children in Texas, and we would never support a bill that would harm public schools in any way,” she said.
What do opponents say?
Whatever term choice advocates use does not matter for the Rev. Charles Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children. Ultimately, he said, vouchers and voucher-like programs harm the education that independent school districts provide to children across the state.
“Vouchers are corrupt. It’s a corruption of the public trust,” Johnson said.
Legislators have tried for three decades to pass a voucher program and have failed each time, Johnson said. He credits those failures to Texans wanting to protect traditional public schools.
School choice also could blur the lines between church and state, the pastor said. Many private schools are associated with a religion. People of varying faiths likely do not want to support funding a school affiliated with a religion with which they may not agree, Johnson said.
Then, John said, there’s the other thing that also follows when the government gets involved — regulation. Independent school districts and charter systems have to follow the state’s accountability system. That means administrating the state standardized test and earning an A-F letter grade from the state.
Directing taxpayer dollars likely means private schools may have to follow some of these accountability laws, Johnson said.
“Keep the public, public and the private, private,” Johnson said. “A voucher program is not going to pass in Texas.”
In other states, sometimes the voucher or other school choice program does not always cover the full cost of a private school, said Huddleston, the TCU professor.
“You’re probably going to have to still pay some money out of pocket, just not as much as you would if you didn’t have the voucher,” Huddleston said.
Another potential downside Huddleston pointed out is the possibility that people may try to set up their own private school in places where one is not already established. Groups may try to take advantage of the law and open schools for the sake of opening them and not offer high quality education, he said.
Lawmakers will need to answer how private schools will be good stewards of taxpayer dollars without the oversight of an elected school board, Huddleston said.
“We, as the public, don’t get a say in how private schools operate because they’re not public, they’re private institutions,” the professor said. “That’s part of the strength of a private institution: You can run things the way that you want, and you don’t have to answer it in terms of a larger public good. That is maybe another argument for why we shouldn’t have vouchers.”
What will happen during the Legislature?
There is more movement on expanding school choice during the upcoming legislative session because Gov. Greg Abbott threw his support behind the idea. Abbott wants state funding to follow students. In 2017, Abbott pledged to sign school choice legislation that crossed his desk. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also is a strong supporter of vouchers.
Despite the support of the state’s top leaders, Johnson said he does not expect the Legislature to pass any form of school choice expansion. Pastors for Texas Children has not seen much movement among lawmakers, especially in the House, to see a viable path for any legislation to make its way to the governor’s desk.
“We don’t think the pro-voucher position gained any members on Nov. 8,” he said.
Johnson anticipates the Senate approving a bill that would later die in the House. Because of how many constituents a senator represents, their roles have become more in line with national politics, he said. The House, though, is closer to Texans and those members have to see their constituents on a more frequent basis, he said.
However, the Texas Private School Association believes a win could happen this legislative session. Colangelo has talked to rural legislators and other lawmakers who have heard from parents pushing for the state to give them another choice for schools, she said.
“The pandemic has shown a spotlight on this and that parents are demanding more options,” Colangelo said.
This legislative session is different than before, Huddleston said. Schools are now perceived differently in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world. Education has become a political football, and some parents are dissatisfied with their schools, he said.
If lawmakers are seeking a silver bullet to solve all of education’s problems, vouchers and other school choice measures likely won’t be it, Huddleston said. Education is too complex, he said.
Still, Huddleston is interested in whether the Legislature will make any movement on expanding school choice. He has his doubts.
“But you never know,” Huddleston said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.