Governor Greg Abbott has made it clear that voucher-like legislation will pass, be it “the hard way or the easy way.” However, as much as the governor keeps shoving the policy down Texans’ throats, many can’t fathom the idea of vouchers and the impact it will have on public school districts.
During the regular session, Gov. Abbott crusaded for vouchers in rural areas where Republican members of the Texas House are against them, hoping to get them and their constituents on board the voucher train. But when it came down to voting on Senate legislation that included voucher-like amendments, “school choice” faced opposition.
The good news? Vouchers died thanks to firm opposition in the House.
The bad news? Vouchers were tied to a bill that would have allocated funding to public schools.
Meaning? Despite having a historic budget surplus, legislators failed to increase the basic allotment, which hasn’t been touched since 2019, or raise teacher pay. Texas ranks 28th in the nation for teacher pay, $7,652 less than the national average, according to the latest National Education Association report.
The “Economics Of The Plan”
Thanks to the lack of compromise between the House and the Senate, local school districts started the school year facing significant financial challenges. Pearland ISD Superintendent Larry Berger states that if vouchers are implemented these budget shortfalls will continue to get worse.
“A further decrease in funding related to the proposed voucher system causing a decrease in enrollment without an increase in the basic allotment will cause adjustments to be made in personnel, capital infrastructure plans, and student programs,” Berger told RA News.
In a state where the money follows the child, students dropping out of public schools would inevitably affect an already scarce budget.
Superintendent Keith Bryant of Lubbock-Cooper ISD told RA News that school funding isn’t that complex. He compared school funding to a pie.
“Every public school in Texas is sharing this pie. If someone takes a slice out of the pie to fund vouchers for private schools or homeschooling, there is less pie remaining for Texas public schools,” Bryant said.
Simply put, if public schools lose a few students per grade level to private schools, they will have lost funding, but still have to provide the same services to the remaining students, but with fewer resources due to the loss of revenue from the students who left, explained Kennedale ISD Superintendent Chad Gee.
Brazos ISD Superintendent Scott Rogers told RA News that by subsidizing private education, the costs will inevitably go up and it will be at the expense of public education.
“Without the legislature addressing public school funding now, inflation is eating away at the bottom line,” Rogers said.
Since 2019, there has been no adjustment made to the Basic Allotment to account for inflation, and it seems that the Senate is not making it a priority. On Monday, Senator Creighton announced Senate Bill 2, a school funding bill that would allocate $5.2 billion to public schools. However, according to the bill, the increase in the BA would only be $75. When accounting for inflation, it should be $1,240.
The Senate also filed Senate Bill 1 to establish an education savings account program that would give $8,000 of taxpayer money to pay for private schools and other educational expenses such as uniforms, textbooks, tutoring, and transportation among other things. It remains to be seen what the House school funding bill will look like, and if they plan to reject the Senate’s voucher bill.
“Success is not free, and if state funding is not increased and vouchers go into effect, hard decisions will have to be made to ensure that academic support is in place,” Berger stated.
Unfair Playing Field
Advocates for ‘school choice’ argue that parents should have the freedom to select their children’s education. But in reality, it’s often private schools that exercise this choice. While public schools have to accept all students, private schools get to pick and choose.
For Arlington ISD Interim Superintendent Steven L. Wurtz, this is worse than reduced resources, “selective admissions could leave students with special needs behind.”
“Public schools are required to accommodate all students regardless of their backgrounds or abilities, and we should continue to receive the necessary funding to fulfill this mission,” Wurtz said in a statement.
Accountability is a concern as well. 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.
“My question is – how many parents will keep the voucher money and claim their children are receiving a homeschooling education through sources that are “approved” instructional sources and not properly monitor the educational process,” Cross Roads ISD Superintendent Richard Tedder pointed out.
In other states that have approved vouchers, this is a common trend. Just last month, an article in the Tampa Bay Times revealed that Florida parents were considering spending voucher money on theme park passes, 55-inch TVs, and stand-up paddleboards. All of these purchases would be authorized expenses according to Step Up For Students, the scholarship funding organization that manages the bulk of Florida’s vouchers.
In contrast, teachers who want some of these items for their classrooms would have to pay out of pocket or turn to other fundraising sources because schools won’t pay for them.
Even those who oppose school choice 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.
“There is concern about the unfair nature that public dollars will be used to fund private schools. Our community does not fear educational competition or is against parents’ right to choose; the issue is the unfair playing field established by our state legislature,” said Pearland ISD Superintendent Berger.
In addition, the ability of private schools to select the student population they serve and the ability to forgo state-mandated testing creates an unfair advantage for teacher recruitment, explained Berger.
Defending Texas Teachers
The Governor is putting immense pressure to broker a deal on the House, which has a history of opposing vouchers, thanks to Democrats and rural Republicans standing together. This would mean that, similar to the regular session, school funding would be held hostage to vouchers. For one to pass, the other must pass as well.
The ultimate test of this session will be how fiercely state representatives are willing to stand up for Texas teachers. House Speaker Dade Phelan has suggested the House is open to negotiations if the Senate passes a big school funding bill. However, House Democrats have made it clear that they are once again prepared to oppose any form of school voucher program.
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.”
“The 24,” a group of rural Republicans who have historically been opposed to vouchers and helped halt them during the regular session, are also still standing strong in their stance against voucher legislation. Superintendent Gee knows the House is trying to fight for the public sector and not the private sector, but fears they will succumb to the political pressure.
“It astonishes me how so many Texans are against vouchers, but our Governor, Lt. Governor, and Senate are more worried about appeasing their wealthy campaign donors who want vouchers for obvious reasons. So much for what the public wants as opposed to the wealthy and politically connected,” Gee said.
House legislators are currently the only barrier Texans have against vouchers.