Texas’ School Voucher Scheme: Yet Another Blow Against Public Education

By Dr. Jerry R. Burkett

As millions of students returned to Texas public schools last week, state senators re-visited implementing school vouchers and expanding charter schools. Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston), who is expected to become the next chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, and Governor Rick Perry have been floating the state’s next attempt at school vouchers, declaring that vouchers will be the voter ID issue of the next legislative session. In other words it will be the red-meat thrown out to pacify their base while distracting voters and lawmakers from the state’s real problems.

So how does this voucher funding scheme work? While supposedly the legislation hasn’t been drafted yet, Joseph Bast, president of conservative think tank the Heartland Institute, spoke before Patrick’s meeting describing the failed 2011 Texas voucher legislation that would have likely resulted in 6% of Texas’ five million students taking vouchers. Under that legislation, the state would have funded voucher students at 40% less than the current average per student state funding. (In other words, to cash in that voucher at your local private school, in the eyes of Texas lawmakers, your child is only worth somewhere around $5,200.) Instead of providing taxpayer funding to public schools with state- and federal-mandated accountability requirements and a locally elected school board to provide oversight, vouchers will allow tax money to instead be funneled to for-profit or parochial private schools or potentially charter schools that are held to little to no state oversight from financial or academic perspectives. At a time when “accountability” and “fiscal responsibility” are the mantras Texas’ conservative legislators, why would conservative leaders float a plan that instead reduces oversight of taxpayer funds and requires less accountability from educators?

Savings for Whom?
Senator Patrick indicated that this program would save the state more than $2 billion dollars in education funding. What Senator Patrick doesn’t mention is this will cut another $2 billion from public schools, which are still reeling from $5.4 billion in cuts in the last legislative session. The re-emergence of vouchers indicates the conservative-led legislature has no intention of restoring funding to the public education system, which ranks 46th in the nation in per student funding and ranks third in student growth. The question for the senator is where will that $2 billion in savings actually go?

Will the bill Patrick drafts put those “savings” back into public schools to help restore funding cut by the 82nd legislature or will these so-called savings be used to fund other boondoggles like Formula One racing, the next Trans Texas Corridor, or to pad the coffers of Rick Perry’s technology investment/crony slush fund? I am sure many education advocates are familiar with the Texas Lottery funding scheme that “funded” education.

But Louisiana Is Doing It…
Vouchers have been pushed by Texas conservatives for decades. In fact, the program has been supported by Governor Rick Perry since he was lieutenant governor in 1999. Despite years of unsuccessful attempts, Texas has renewed its interest in vouchers this year in part due to model legislation that is making the rounds in state houses nationwide. The state of Louisiana recently passed legislation for a full scale voucher program earlier this year. When implemented, it will be the nation’s largest voucher program.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal came under fire from religious leadersteachers groups, and education advocates over his aggressive voucher push. The Louisiana program has been mired in controversy due to a lax screening process for schools eligible to receive funding (more than 90% of schools that applied for voucher eligibility were accepted to the program). The eligible schools originally included institutions that were housed in church gymnasiums and utilized DVDs instead of teachers, Other schools use creation theory-based textbooks that teach the Loch Ness monster is real.

In addition, Louisiana state representatives were shocked to find that opening taxpayer funding to religious institutions actually meant all religions. Louisiana Representative Valarie Hodges, (R-Watson), nearly pulled her support of the bill when she found out the funding could be used to support Muslim schools (although the Muslim schools that originally applied have since removed their applications – this year). Representative Hodges mistakenly believed that the term “religious” only meant “Christian.”

The Devil Is In the Details
Then why, despite years of conservative backing, adoption of similar programs in other states, and revamping the negative connotations of “vouchers” with new focus group-vetted code terms like “school choice” and “taxpayer savings grants,” hasn’t Texas’ legislature been able to adopt the program? Because it presents a variety of challenges:

    • Financially, this plan doesn’t work for families in the real world. Voucher students will only be worth 60% of what public school students are worth. Parents will be expected to make up the tuition difference in private schools, few of which require only $5,200 in tuition annually. For example, of the most expensive private school in the Dallas area according to a list published by The Dallas Business Journal, The Episcopal School of Dallas, costs $25,570 per year. Even if your child was one of the 26% of students lucky enough to be accepted, you would have to cover the additional $20,370 per year in tuition costs in addition to other costs (i.e. books, supplies, etc.).
    • Voucher programs are a non-starter outside of Texas’ cities. If you live in rural areas, you likely don’t have a go-to charter or private school option in your town. Instead of addressing the needs of public education for rural Texans, voucher legislation will simply shrug off their needs. But, Senator Patrick would be wise to realize that the last legislator to float a voucher scheme was Representative Sid Miller from Stephenville, a town that has very few charter or private school options. In 2011 Miller showed his disregard for public education by pushing a voucher bill. In 2012 Miller lost his seat. Rural Texans seemingly don’t embrace coupons for education in lieu of the state actually funding public schools as constitutionally required.
    • Vouchers don’t solve education underfunding. With vouchers or without vouchers, Texas schools remain underfunded. As parents take vouchers in the name of school choice, the loss of per student revenue will be even more problematic for public schools with growing student populations. Since the 82nd legislature did not fund the 160,000 new students to Texas over the past two years, creating a state-funded voucher system will create an even larger deficit for public schools creating two systems of education in our state with already limited funding.
    • Your taxes will continue to go up. Parents who take vouchers will continue to pay property taxes to their local school system. Schools are already in a precarious situation from last biennium’s defunding. In addition, the cost of education is rising due to increased requirements from No Child Left Behind, as well as unfunded mandates placed on school districts by the state. To combat these costs, districts will likely seek to raise local funding through bond and tax rate elections. So, the voucher parents that are only receiving 60% of state funding and making up the additional funding required to pay private tuition, will likely face increased property taxes to finance the underfunded public school system. Additionally, those that remain in the public system will likely see increased campus fund-raisers, the need for additional school supplies from parents, or cutting programs like music, art, and gifted and talented.

This is Their Answer?
Rather than fixing what they’ve broken through years of under-funding, broken funding formulas, and mountains of mandates, Patrick and Perry are doubling down on their attempts to destroy Texas’ public education system. Unfortunately, this voucher scheme masquerading as the elixir that will fix all that ails Texas’ education system only proves that the state has abandoned its constitutional responsibility to public schools. Instead of acknowledging the increased educational costs
associated with the third largest level of student enrollment growth in the nation, as well as the increased requirements of No Child Left Behind and the new rigors of STARR, Texas’ solution is to further de-fund a public system that adds an unfunded 80,000 students per year while shouldering funding cuts of more than 11% since 2008.

Rather than working with school districts and parents to fund and enhance the public school system, the 83rd legislature will ignore it and focus their attention and funding on profit-based models with little accountability or oversight. They will expand the already cumbersome 1,000+ district education system, essentially adding the bureaucracy of a new ISD for every private school or charter school funded by taxpayers, at a time when Texas should actually consider consolidation to achieve the oft-repeated but rarely sought fiscal responsibility that legislators and policy wonks like to pontificate about. They will not address public education funding and will instead allow Texas property owners and parents to shoulder more and more ofthe growing burden. And they will do so at a time when the state courts are trying to determine the adequacy of the state’s education funding systems, which seems especially brazen.

Senator Patrick and Governor Perry, if you want to push a voucher scheme, go ahead and push it. Since there are few pragmatists and non-idealogues left in the legislature, this should pass in 2013. But do not pretend – even for a minute – that this has anything to do with the interests of education or students or parents. This is about your interests – be it using taxpayer funding for parochial-based education, allowing for-profit education institutions and charters a shot at taxpayer funding trough, or dismantling the public education system. Please have enough integrity to not hide behind school children and pretend to have their interests at heart. If you had the interests of school children at heart, all of their schools would be funded.

So this is their best solution? Patrick and Perry have heard the cries from students, educators, school districts, parents, and advocates and this is their answer? Privatize education and let the public system wither and die. The real needs of Texas families and students be damned. The needs of rural Texans be damned. The future of Texas’ economic prosperity and ability to educate future workforces be damned.

A radio disc jockey and career politician seem to know better than educators, parents, and students.

Only in Texas.

Leave a Reply