School choice has made it to the top of the priorities list this session, with both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick on board. Proponents believe parents should have a say in their children’s education, while advocates are worried this will exclude rural communities and underfund an already struggling public education system.
On Thursday, The Texas Tribune explored “What’s right for Texas?” in an education panel that focused on the challenges facing our public education system, including school choice efforts like vouchers and Educational Savings Funds (ESA.)
The panel was moderated by Texas Tribune Brian Lopez, which included Laura Colangelo, the executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association; Scott Muri, the superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District, Michelle Smith, the executive director of Raise Your Hand Texas; and Randan Steinhauser, a national school choice director for Young Americans for Liberty.
Are Vouchers the Right Choice for Texas?
When talking about choices every single panel member agreed that “choices and options” should be a topic of discussion. However, the definition of “options for schools” varied according to each panelist’s point of view.
Proponents of vouchers, like Steinhauser, define school choice as programs that “empower parents” with state money to send their kids to schools outside of the state’s public education system. Advocates and education professionals, like Muri, feel public education already offers a variety of options that can meet every student’s needs.
“School districts across the state of Texas are filled with choices and opportunities that are a reflection of their own community. That is our responsibility, to listen and take care of the needs of the children we serve,” said Muri.
The momentum for vouchers and ESA’s really picked up during the pandemic, due to displeased parents, who criticized the way their public schools responded to COVID-19 and were against how race and history are taught.
“COVID really revealed a lot of deep cracks in our system. Parents were all of a sudden in the front row seat of what their children were learning and they were oftentimes surprised at what they were learning or perhaps what they weren’t,” said Steinhauser, after stating she was a fierce proponent of school choice.
Abbott has also taken advantage of these culture wars against teachers and school staff to push his political agenda: “Parents are angry today about social agendas being pushed on our kids in our schools in Texas and that is unacceptable. Schools are for education, not indoctrination.”
Steinhauser even went as far as to suggest that bureaucratic entities such as the Texas association of school boards have on their agenda to teach gender pronouns and Marx’s curriculum.
The current fight conservatives have against teachers is adding additional strain to educators in Texas, which is currently in the midst of a teacher exodus crisis – 66% of educators wished to leave the profession in 2022.
Meanwhile, Texas teachers really “just want to teach.”
“They’re not there teaching the things that they are being demonized for,” Smith said. “They are busy teaching math, reading, they’re busy getting ready for the STAAR test. Those are the things that they’re doing and they just want to teach instead of somebody going after them and constantly attacking them and them feeling like they have to leave the system.”
Funding the System vs Funding the Kid
“Let’s stop talking about funding the system and talk about funding the kid,” Steinhauser proposed after claiming that “throwing money at the issue” wasn’t going to solve the system.
However, if you separate the kid from the system, public schools lose funding. In a state where schools are funded with an Average Daily Attendance (ADA) method, every day a child misses school costs the district the per capita funding allotment ($6,160,) meaning thousands of dollars lost per year.
Also, many kids don’t have the option to leave the system.
Rural superintendents are concerned the loss of funding if students leave the district for private schools could be devastating. Texas is home to the most rural students in the nation, and in most cases, public schools in rural areas serve as a hub for employment, and private schools are scarce in these areas.
Not only will rural kids probably miss out, but most likely low-income minorities will still not be able to afford their local private school – even with a voucher or ESA.
The private elementary school average tuition cost is $10,068 per year, and the private high school average is $11,637 per year in Texas. And that is only tuition, most private schools also foot a bill for technology, books & supplies, field trips, uniforms, athletics, application fees, parent association fees, insurance, transportation or room and board, extracurricular costs, and summer program costs, which could up the cost by $3,000-$4,000 yearly.
When it comes to funding the public school system, Smith advocates we shouldn’t be taking out billions of dollars from an already underfunded public school system, to drive students to private schools. But rather use that money to make Texas’ public schools system better. “Texas is funding students $4,000 below the national average. Teachers are funded $7,000 below the national average. We are 42nd in the country in per-student funding, Smith said. “So, we can’t make an argument that money doesn’t matter because Texas isn’t funding the system adequately.”