Earlier this week, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick released his 2022 Interim Legislative Charges for thirteen different legislative committees around a number of issues. Interim charges serve as a task list for legislators to review current legislation and a blueprint for what they might consider during the next legislative session. Patrick’s charges cover everything from border security to the electric grid to education as well as many other items.
In public education, Patrick charged Senators with a number of issues related to parent empowerment; the effects of COVID-19 on the teacher workforce; student discipline; the content of library books; vaping; school bonds; charter schools; and property tax exemptions, while tasking them to monitor a variety of current legislation.
Based on past support by the Lt. Governor and recent comments by Governor Greg Abbott, there is some concern that the Texas Senate will once again push private school vouchers forth as an issue. Under the heading of Parent Empowerment, Patrick states: “Review Texas’ existing parental rights and responsibilities in current law. Evaluate current public-school practices toward parental and community engagement related to curriculum and learning materials, campus and district management, governance, accessibility to school officials, and data usage and privacy. Make recommendations to enable parents to exert a greater influence on their child’s learning environment, including enacting meaningful change at their public-school campus or district, and affirm parents as primary decision-makers over their child’s schooling options.” Affirming “parents as primary decision-makers over their child’s schooling options” signals vouchers to many people.
Vouchers have never fared well in Texas, failing each legislative session since 1995. Conversations with a variety of state legislators and Austin-based politicos indicate that while, vouchers will likely pass the Senate in the next legislative session in 2023, it is still unlikely that they will pass the House. In the regular session of the 87th Texas Legislature, the Texas House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to prohibit state funds from being used on school voucher programs.
On top of vouchers consistently failing in the Texas Legislature, three other states have recently voted against vouchers. Oklahoma, Georgia, and Utah recently rejected private school vouchers aimed at providing state dollars to private schools.
In Oklahoma, a voucher bill that would have provided $128.5 million taxpayer dollars for private schools failed in the Senate by a narrow margin in March of this year. Senate Bill 1647, called the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, was defeated by a 24-22 vote against the bill. The bill, authored by Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat was also supported by Governor Kevin Stitt who pledged to sign the bill if it passed. Had the bill passed the Senate, it likely would have failed in the House as Speaker Charles McCall had said he would not give the bill a hearing.
Opponents of the bill cited multiple problems. Rev. Clark Frailey, the Lead Pastor of Coffee Creek Church in Edmond and the Executive Director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids said, “In Oklahoma, there are many reasons to oppose private school vouchers that are funded by taking resources away from public schools. There are religious liberty problems, constitutional issues, and practical implications for parents. In this session, it was made quite clear by parents in rural, urban, and suburban Oklahoma communities that they want well-resourced schools in their own communities. They are not interested in being forced to transit hours a day just to have access to good schools.”
Likewise, Georgia Senators refused to pass a voucher bill supported by their Senate Pro Tem, Butch Miller. Senate Bill 601, which would have given private schools up to $6,000 per student, failed by a vote of 29-20. While supporters of the bill argued that it would give some parents more educational options, opponents pointed out that the voucher would likely be used by wealthier parents that are able to supplement tuition from their disposable income. “If you were really going to try to allow lower income families to exercise school choice, this bill would be means-tested,” said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat. “Instead, it’s going to be used a lot more by individuals who already have the means.”
In February, Utah lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected a $36 million voucher bill which would have provided leveled funding for private schools based on the parents’ income. House Bill 331 was struck down by a vote of 22-53. Critics noted that, even at the highest funding level, the amount of the voucher would not have covered private school tuition for many schools in Utah. Others questioned the accountability of private schools’ use of public taxpayer dollars, pointing out that private schools are not held to the same transparency standards as public schools. “I don’t see strong accountability measures here,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe of Salt Lake City. “There’s very minimal accountability measures here and then with an opportunity to opt out.”
All the issues cited in these cases have been raised in Texas for nearly 30 years since vouchers were first proposed in the Texas Legislature.
Vouchers do not typically provide enough money to cover private school tuition, so they are often used by parents wealthy enough to send their children to private schools already. They normally do not cover transportation costs so poor parents who are often working more than one job may not be able to get their kids to a private school, even if they could afford to supplement the voucher. Many private schools are religious in nature. Should taxpayer funds be used to provide a religious education in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
Finally, vouchers are a redistribution of taxpayer funds to private citizens that divert funds from the common good of public education. Is it even right or just that such a thing occurs?
While some state leaders and voucher proponents claim that Texas citizens want vouchers, a recent poll has shown that parents overwhelmingly approve of Texas public schools and that 80% of them would keep their kids in their current school even if other options were available.
Vouchers may be the idea of a few people in Texas, but they are not the idea of most Texans, and they are failing in other states.