There is a lot of uncertainty around the term “vouchers” which have been Gov. Greg Abbott’s top political priority for 2023. As the Texas Legislature navigates a special session on the matter, The Texas Tribune held a panel on public education to determine what voucher-like legislation looks like and what it would mean for students, teachers, and the future of public education in Texas.
And most importantly, can compromise be reached?
Gov. Abbott has made it clear that voucher-like legislation will pass, be it “the hard way or the easy way.” Stating that he is willing to call as many special sessions as needed to pass the legislation. He is also putting immense pressure on the House to broker a deal. This means that similar to the regular session, school funding would be held hostage to vouchers. For one to pass, the other must pass as well.
Even though Democrats and rural Republicans have historically opposed vouchers, House Speaker Dade Phelan suggested the House is open to negotiations if the Senate passes a big school funding bill.
Future of Public Education
The Texas Tribune’s conversation was moderated by Becky Fogel, education reporter at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR Station, and various panelists which included Corey A. DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children; Norma V. Cantú, professor of education and professor of law at the UT Austin College of Education; and John Emerich, the superintendent of Crockett ISD.
The primary focus of the discussion revolved around gaining a deeper insight into the potential impacts of vouchers on the existing public school system and the allocation of taxpayer funds.
Even those who oppose vouchers agree that parents have a right to choose what is best for their child, but just not with taxpayers’ money. Taxpayers will not know where their dollars went or what kind of education Texas children will get.
Public schools are held responsible for addressing student achievement, ensuring school safety, and adhering to specific curriculum standards set by the state. In contrast, private schools do not face the same level of accountability to state standards.
To “level the playing field” DeAngelis suggested conversations should be held to see if maybe deregulating public schools would be the answer: “What if we were to deregulate the public schools, allow you to be more flexible and autonomous and then also have a level playing field.”
“Instead of strapping the private schools with the same things that the public schools are complaining about, why don’t we all agree that maybe we should rethink the whole STAAR test thing,” DeAngelis said.
To Cantú that seemed like a “simple answer that would get them into a lot of trouble.” She explained that public schools are connected to several existing Texas requirements such as state and local policies, Texas health code, Texas tax code, texas labor code, Texas penal code, records, communication with parents, contracts, real estate partnerships with businesses, and partnerships with higher education.
So just cutting all the red tape would be dangerous. “If we want to have safe schools we can’t just deregulate everything,” Cantú said.
Another issue is funding, while Gov. Abbott says it’s possible to fully fund public schools while funding vouchers, many voucher opponents think diverting money from severely underfunded public schools should not be on the table.
When Fogel asked Superintendent Emerich if he thinks his school is fully funded, he responded: “Absolutely not.”
“The last increase that schools got was in 2019, since that time we’ve had a 19% increase in inflation without an increase to the school. The proposed bill right now gives us an extra $75dlls. Just to keep up with inflation the basic allotment would need to be about $7,100, they are proposing $6235,” said Emerich.
In addition, Emerich stated that the number 1 discussion that the Legislature should be having right now is teacher pay since it is the leading #1 cause of Texas’ teacher exodus crisis.
“That should be the number one discussion that we are having right now, not the idea of school choice, we already have school choice in Texas, kids are free to go to other districts,” Emrich said.
A recurring theme that permeated the entire discussion, and one that resonated unanimously with all panelists, was the overarching goal of a good “Education for all” enshrined in the Texas Constitution. However, this entails that Texas public schools, which will continue to serve the majority of children even if vouchers are passed, must receive adequate funding and resources to effectively work towards achieving this shared goal.
The pursuit of this objective now squarely rests within the purview of the Texas Legislature during this third special session. With democrats and rural Republicans in the House still strong on their stance against vouchers.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who leads the House Democratic Caucus, firmly stated to reporters that their stance is unequivocal: “very clear: no vouchers and no deals.”