On a Tuesday morning at Nolan Catholic High School, about 10 students were in an advanced Spanish class. Just down the hall, a macroeconomics class is just as small.
A low teacher-student ratio is a point of pride at the Fort Worth campus, Principal Oscar Ortiz said. They want to serve students by keeping class sizes small and personal.
At Nolan Catholic, tuition is $18,550 not including class fees per year. Additional costs also include textbooks and supplies, course fees, uniforms, AP exams, athletic fees, optional food service and more.
The campus provides discounts for families with multiple students enrolled and need-based financial aid, which Ortiz said 70% of the students receive in some form.
Also in east Fort Worth, roughly 6 miles from Nolan Catholic, is Fort Worth ISD’s Morningside Middle School, where the campus has a portable building with extra clothes and hygiene products for students, and provides services like haircuts for their families.
At Morningside, 98.3% of families are economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency.
The students at these campuses are having vastly different experiences, and those advocating for expanding school choice in Texas, specifically education savings accounts, say this is one of the reasons – they want to level the educational playing field.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called the school choice issue the “civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
Gov. Greg Abbott stopped at Nolan Catholic on April 20 to stump for the passing of the legislation he said would empower parents to choose the best school for their children, whether private or public. He said public schools would not lose funding if the measure passes.
“We’re not facing an either-or choice,” Abbott said. “The reality is we can have both.”
Some educators and experts, however, told the Fort Worth Report that campuses like Morningside have more to lose if education savings accounts become a reality in Texas. They said it’s unlikely the voucher-like program will help low-income students.
The proposed legislation would not cover tuition and fees and, therefore, would not help all families, Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Angélica Ramsey said.
A study in Indiana found low-income students declined in achievement metrics after participating in a school voucher program, said Ken Helvey, education doctorate program director at Texas Wesleyan University.
“It’s very difficult to quantify to what extent financial resources impact student achievement, particularly in test scores, because there is so much that goes into that,” Helvey said. “There’s definitely some evidence that I’m looking at, it tends to benefit more affluent families than lower-income families.”
However, Mandy Drogin, the campaign director for Next Generation Texas at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said adding education savings accounts to the mix could incentivize public schools to do better.
“Introducing the ability for a parent who knows and loves their child to make the choice of where their child goes to school, it creates a better system, incentivizes innovation in the public schools,” she said. “It incentivizes everyone to be better for a better education for each individual child. And that’s why this push is gaining so much momentum.”
Meanwhile, private schools are concerned about the accountability strings that come attached with state funding. School choice also could be a setback for racial diversity in public schools.
Separation of church and state?
Nolan Catholic High School believes God gave parents the right to choose what kind of education their children can have and a duty to ensure they are educated, Ortiz said.
However, private schools remain private because they are wary about government involvement, Ortiz said.
Public funds are prohibited from being used “for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary,” according to the Texas Constitution. Budget amendments approved by the House in the 2023 Legislative session prohibit vouchers from the budget.
That said, parents get options with vouchers, which Ortiz thinks is good, but if the school receives state money, he’s concerned it will impact how the campus population is able to authentically practice Catholicism.
The Texas Council of Bishops went to Austin to speak on the legislation, Ortiz said, and a concern of the Catholic Church is that the school choice proposals negatively affect those who need it the most — the poorest of the poor.
“We want to make sure that we are giving attention to those in the most need, and that this is not just another way for affluent people to find that loophole,” Ortiz said.
Some advocates insist the legislation will help low-income families. An analysis by the Fort Worth Report of more than 30 private schools found the average tuition in Fort Worth is $14,993. Of the 38 private schools in Fort Worth, 12 charge tuition higher than the city’s average.
Drogin has traveled with the governor to private schools across the state as Abbotts fights for ESAs.
She told the Fort Worth Report they’ve encountered schools going as far as telling families to pay what they can.
Just looking at tuition costs online can be misleading, Drogin said, because many students at the schools are on some kind of financial aid or scholarship — like Ortiz described at Nolan Catholic.
If students want to attend, most schools will find a way to offset costs with scholarships or other forms of aid, Drogin said.
“This idea that it won’t cover it, it’s not accurate based on the numbers of what’s going on within the schools,” Drogin said. “Students have parents that want to send their children to those schools.”
How private schools approach accountability
Joining the financial uncertainty of ESAs as a hot topic is accountability.
In Texas, public and open enrollment charter schools have to take the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, and scores from those tests are key factors in the state’s A-F accountability rating system.
For Ortiz, accountability at his school looks different. Instead of reporting to the state, they report to the parents.The campus has to ensure students are performing well on the ACT or SAT college admission tests, passing AP tests and dual-credit courses – and getting into college.
If parents are not satisfied with their child’s education they could be pulled from the school, which is a financial hit.
Ortiz said avoiding STAAR testing is one reason parents choose private schools. From his years in the classroom, Ortiz knows that STAAR can determine curriculum.
Though they do not take the STAAR test, private schools can administer other kinds of tests to track learning. One example is the IOWA test and the Classic Learning Test, both of which are options in elementary school at Nolan Catholic, Ortiz said.
High school students at Nolan Catholic take the PSAT, SAT and Classic Learning Test, he said. Students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses take the AP tests as well.
If the state starts to require private schools administer the STAAR test because they receive state money, Ortiz is concerned it could be a “Trojan horse” for concepts that do not align with Catholicism.
Moreso, Ortiz is concerned about the message STAAR sends to students.
“We’re trying to inculcate in our students that what matters in life is other things more than a career, more than college, more than the notoriety that comes from going to an Ivy League. We want our students to get into the best schools,” he said. “But we also need to be careful that we’re not communicating to our students that all that matters is jumping through hoops and getting good grades.”
The STAAR test is dangerous because of what it communicates to students – that it’s the only thing that is important, he said.
“Then, the emphasis in the classroom is no longer the pursuit of truth,” Ortiz said. “That’s an important philosophical pillar for us. We’re doing this because we love the truth and we want to pursue it. … But what the test insinuates is, what really matters is for you to pass this if you want to get into the school of your choice.”
Holding private schools and parents accountable
Private schools accepting taxpayer money without accountability is unfair to families and wrong, said Fred Jones, senior director of public policy and advocacy for the Southern Education Foundation.
“There has to be a universal way to hold all institutions accountable if they’re accepting public resources to operate so those parents know how those institutions are doing,” Jones said. “All schools need to be held to the same standard and have the same accountability structure.”
Amendments to Senate Bill 8 including accountability measures for private school failed, according to the Texas Tribune.
Families who choose to use the ESAs should also face accountability, said Helvey, the Texas Wesleyan professor.
Helvey cited Arizona as an example, where officials uncovered at least $700,000 in fraudulent spending with state voucher money.
Additionally, Helvey said, it’s difficult to find any positive impact of vouchers in the research he’s done.
However, other studies have shown that school voucher programs have led to test scores getting better over time, according to the Cato Institute.
And an Ohio study concluded that school choice programs increase competition, which can have a positive impact.
What is SB 8?
The education savings accounts would give families $8,000 they could spend on private school tuition and other costs, like textbooks or tutoring. The program, outlined in Senate Bill 8, passed the Senate on April 6 and is moving on to the House, where opposition is expected.
An amendment to SB 8 changed the eligibility requirements for ESAs, stating that 10% of students already enrolled in private schools can use the vouchers, but only if they meet an income threshold. Originally, only students not enrolled in private schools would have been eligible for the funds.
On the same day SB 8 passed, the House passed a budget amendment that will not allow state funds to go to private schools.
Fort Worth state Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican, supports the budget amendment, saying, “I’m very pro-public education,” according to NBC DFW.
Private schools remain mostly white
To discuss vouchers today, history cannot be ignored, Jones said. After the Civil War, African Americans “played crucial roles in creating public schools.”
Integration started after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and vouchers soon followed, said Jones, with the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta. At the same time private schools in the South started opening doors at higher rates, according to the foundation.
“A lot of legislation was starting to be introduced to allow parents public funds so their children could go to private schools because many families, especially white families, did not want to go to school with Black families,” he said.
The private schools have remained mostly white.
“Generally, private schools overwhelmingly and disproportionately enroll more white students and wealthier students,” Jones said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 66% of the 4.7 million students enrolled in private schools in the fall 2019 were white.
Vouchers alone will not cover tuition at most Fort Worth private schools, according to research by the Fort Worth Report, meaning families will have to fill significant gaps if they want to take their children out of public schools.
Higher- and middle-income families will be the ones using the education savings accounts, Jones said.
“Because of the nature of how things are in our economy, typically lower income folks are people of color and higher income folks are disproportionately white,” Jones said. “So we’re just developing a system where, from a race and socio-economic standpoint, there are certain people who will be able to take advantage of these programs and those types of folks who will continue to look like the individuals who are already in the private school system.”
Some private schools push back against the lack of diversity narrative. At Nolan Catholic, Ortiz said many of his students are Hispanic, Black and Vietnamese.
“There is a population, especially a very high Hispanic population, that is looking for more, Catholic-based education,” Ortiz said. “They will look at our school as an opportunity because we’re already covering for a lot of our families.”
Nolan Catholic is a ministry of the Church itself, Ortiz said, so he wants to invite and welcome everyone.
However, students at schools like Morningside still need the free outside services – from transportation to meals and after-school programs – that come with public education.
“Public schools admit all students and have services to meet their needs,” said Ramsey, Fort Worth ISD’s superintendent. “It is possible that parents who select to utilize a voucher will encounter that their children no longer have all the services they require.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.