At a press conference held in Tyler Wednesday, Smith County area school district superintendents gathered at the Tyler Independent School District’s Career & Technology Center to criticize the school voucher plan being considered in Austin, something Gov. Greg Abbott has been barnstorming the state’s rural areas to promote.
While Tyler ISD, which is the largest district in Smith County, is not a rural district, the leadership actively supports the rural districts in the area in opposing the so-called “school choice” plan favored by Abbott. The press event was held for the district leaders to show parents and the community that they are together in solidarity in opposing the plan.
Tyler is the metro hub of the county, where 350,000 work and shop, and while it only has a little over 100,000 residents in the city limits, 250,000 come to Tyler daily, according to school district officials.
“East Texas, particularly in Smith County, has always enjoyed a special and cordial relationship among the different school options that have existed successfully over the past 50-plus years,” said Tyler ISD Superintendent Dr. Marty Crawford.
Not coincidentally, the board met to express support Wednesday for funding public schools rather than further imperiling them by allowing tax dollars to be taken away due to the voucher program, as Abbott’s next stop in the tour is Thursday at Grace Community School in Tyler.
“Educational independence and relationships already exist as a foundation for daily life. And yet, instead of building upon those partnerships, we see attacks at that collaboration when competitive teacher salaries in alignment with other professions should be the focus of any statewide political campaign tour,” Crawford explained.
Tyler ISD School Board President Wade Washmon spoke on behalf of the Board, saying “The state government is offering to use public dollars to outright fund Christian schools through vouchers…How does that work? Sounds like a conflict of interest,” according to channel KLTV-7.
“We’re all for choice, we’re all for innovative ways to teach and learn, and to serve our communities in the manner they wish to be served, but if tax dollars to public education are going to be measured, then we need to measure EVERY tax dollar spent on education in the state of Texas so adequate comparisons can be made, and we’re on a level playing field,” Washmon added.
Tyler, which is in Smith County, also includes Arp, Brownsboro, Chapel Hill, Lindale, Tyler, Troup, Whitehouse, and Winona ISDs, and superintendents from those districts also voiced their concern about the proposed voucher program, for fear it would create problems for the public school system in rural areas like theirs.
“One has to wonder why Austin, Texas is so aggressively injecting itself into this region, county, and city while not addressing the most impactful influencer on student outcomes and ultimately our economy: a well-qualified, well-paid, high-performing educator in front of every K-12 student,” Crawford concluded.
According to a press release issued by Jennifer Hines, Chief Communications Officer with Tyler ISD, Washmon went on to say that “public schools are held accountable for their students’ performance through the STAAR test and other measures. The state also gives public school districts financial ratings to evaluate their management of taxpayer resources, and school districts’ finances are open to the public. Most importantly, public school districts are governed by publicly elected trustees. Private schools do not have these accountability measures in place, and many private schools have voiced strong opposition to state assessments at their schools.”
Many rural districts have trouble competing with larger districts for teaching talent, and vouchers — also known as the GOP-assigned moniker “School Choice” — are seen by many in the state as a slap in the face to local communities, as well as the concept of separation of church and state.
Tuesday night Abbott continued his promotion of using taxpayer funds to fund private schools via the voucher program in Bryan, in the fifth stop in his recent tour known as “parent empowerment night” was at Brazos Christian School.
So Crawford’s remarks seem all the more valid — as five of the stops in Abbott’s voucher campaign have been at Christian schools — as the governor has visited Temple, Corsicana, Conroe, and Amarillo.
Just like the public school districts in Smith County, Bryan ISD school board members, and administrators touted the benefits of public education — and called on state lawmakers for additional money — the day before Abbott’s speaking engagement.
Many rural districts also don’t offer a great number of options for students whose parents want to remove them from public schools, particularly in sparsely populated counties. So the program is seen as addressing the wrong issues in pursuit of improving the state public school system.
The concern of local leaders also includes worries about the negative funding impact of such private school options coming out of public schools, especially in rural areas where the school district is a primary employer in parts of the state without robust economic development.
The rallies in support of vouchers are coordinated by Parent Empowerment Coalition, an activist arm of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose funders are long-time critics of the state’s public school system due to their arch-conservative political positions.
But Democrats and many Republicans argue against the idea of creating a full-blown system that would allow parents — many solely motivated by political ideology — from taking public tax dollars to educate their children outside of the public school system.
Only about 40% of the cost of Texas public education comes from the state, making funding the critical issue for rural districts in this legislative session. Thus, lawmakers have numerous education funding bills in this session, which most public school advocates view as critical.
State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin said “We are one of only six states in the whole United States of America that punish schools by deducting (funding) from what our schools receive when our kids are absent,” speaking to the current funding method, which is determined by attendance, rather than enrollment — making budgeting a nightmare, particularly in a public health crisis like a pandemic.
So as the 87th Legislative session approaches the midway point, lawmakers have their hands full trying to figure out how to use the state’s once-in-a-generation budget surplus — a projected record $32.7B — to help ensure the progress of public education in the state.