Recent developments in school choice measures in Texas; Sign up to receive our weekly education newsletter.
As a Texas school superintendent, Adrienne Johnson is no stranger to the struggles small rural public schools face, from trying to hire teachers, especially after moving schools for more than two years during the global pandemic, to a general lack of resources. And now, after the school shooting in Uvalde, there’s a renewed conversation about campus safety.
Johnson, who oversees the Hearne Independent School District northwest of College Station, doesn’t understand why state lawmakers’ to-do lists heading into next year’s legislative session seem to focus more on things like schools. Security.
“Every legislative year there always seems to be a school choice debate, and I’m not afraid of that. I think it’s good to discuss. That’s part of democracy,” Johnson said.
But he also wonders why public schools always hold back in pursuit of policies that undermine them.
“Why not make it a point to support the local school district?” he said.
Instead, from where he stands, the conversation in Austin is already focused on school choice, a broad term that applies to a host of taxpayer-funded options for sending a child to a local public school.
Although the Texas Legislature does not meet for another five months, Governor Greg Abbott has voiced his support for public school options. Abbott said he supports parents’ choice to send their children to any state-funded public, charter or private school. And Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is running against Abbott in November, has joined the debate, running ads calling on public schools to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan.”
The Texas Republican Party has listed school choice as a legislative priority, and school choice groups such as the Texas Association of Private Schools and the Texas Public Policy Foundation are pushing for school choice legislation.
But in the northeastern corner of the state, Rep. Gary Vandever, a Republican who covers 30 rural school districts, remains unconvinced. In the year He was one of several lawmakers who helped kill school choice legislation in 2017. One of the concerns he hears from parents is that they are paying property taxes to support public schools, but they choose to home school or have to send their children, he said. to a private school.
“I would prefer to lower property taxes, so they have the option to spend the money however they choose, whether it’s on alternative education options, saving for college or buying a new car,” VanDeaver said.
Texas passed some school choice measures. Vandever points to the state’s approval of the charter school system in the 1990s, which gave students in low-performing schools the ability to leave the district.
“Proponents of expanding school choice options often say the money should follow the student,” Vandever said. “Current Texas law does that if a student transfers to another public school, including a charter school.”
From his perspective, Vandever has good reason to be concerned. In small Texas towns and cities, there is much less “choice” for rural students. Outside of large metro areas, private schools are few and far between. Many rural private schools have religious affiliations. And Vandever was told that private religious schools in his area were not interested in public funds. He worries about the damage a voucher program could do to the local public school district.
“This sense of community is what makes Texas great, and I would hate to see anything like a voucher program destroy that community spirit,” he said.
Conservative efforts to pass school choice measures have failed primarily because there are few private or charter schools as alternatives outside of the state’s largest cities. Also, public school systems are a major economic and employment driver for most small towns.
In Texas, schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled and daily attendance on campus. Schools receive a base allocation of $6,160 per student each year. Texas is home to more rural students than any other state, and its schools are funded by property taxes.
Proponents say more school choice options would help low-income families get a better education. Opponents believe that school choice policies weaken the public education system because they divert public school dollars to private schools, which are largely unregulated and therefore unaccountable.
In addition to vouchers, lawmakers could consider education savings accounts, or ESAs, where the state can use taxpayer dollars for families to pay for education costs such as private school tuition. But the funds can also be used for tutoring, online classes and higher education costs.
Tax credit scholarships, which allow individuals or businesses to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to the scholarship fund, are then made available to families to enroll in private schools.
Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Association of Private Schools, said the tax credit, or ESA, option would work well for Texas. Her organization opposes the voucher policy.
“We’re almost 20 years away, and so I think there’s a lot we can do to improve options — educational options — for parents and kids in Texas,” Colangelo said.
But the fight will once again convince rural lawmakers that school choice is the way to go.
San Angelo State Representative Drew Darby told the Texas Tribune last week that he opposes anything that takes resources away from Texas public schools.
Bill Taleton, executive director of the Texas Rural Education Association, worries that private schools don’t have the same transparency and accountability because they don’t have elected school boards. It also questions whether any school choice law benefits all students, since private schools can pick and choose who they accept.
“Only public schools are supposed to educate all students,” Tarleton said.
Vandever said he’s not one to close the door on any policy and looks forward to next session’s debate. He wants a better accountability system for private schools that receive the money.
“As conservatives, we expect that from our public schools,” he said. “For every education dollar, no matter where it goes, we need to know we’re getting our money’s worth.”
Disclosure: The Texas Association of Private Schools and the Public Policy Foundation of Texas The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization, was funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no role in Tribune journalism. Find their full list here.
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