Posted Date: 10/05/2023
October 2023: What’s the Big Deal? Vouchers/Parent Choice 101
Topic: Vouchers/Educational Savings Accounts/Parent Choice
“What’s the big deal?”, you might ask. School vouchers are receiving a lot of publicity right now and this month’s blog is devoted to providing basic information you may not hear in the mainstream media. It is important that you form your own opinion regarding this matter.
The term ‘voucher’ is commonly now referred to as an Educational Savings Account (ESA), Parental Choice, Universal School Choice, and others to avoid the negative attention that has been drawn for a number of years, as this agenda has failed to pass a legislative session multiple times. Parents absolutely should have the right to choose if their child attends a public school, charter school, private school, or home school. No government should dictate that decision. As the district superintendent for seven years and with 30 years in public education, I have witnessed some great private, public, and homeschool environments. However, I believe that taxpayer monies to fund any type of school should come with equal accountability, equal opportunity, and equal transparency. These are the key differences between public and other options.
If this were such a great idea, then state politicians would not need to hold needed teacher pay raises and school funding hostage, threaten state lawmakers with removal from office, and even now attempt to bring local pastors into the equation to make a religious issue out of a failed scheme. At the end of the legislative session, a bill was filed that would provide needed school funding and increased salaries to partially offset inflation. Governor Abbott made it resoundingly clear that he would veto any bill regarding these dire needs unless a voucher system was included. Threats were sent to members of the Texas Legislature that ‘not voting for vouchers’ would ensure a primary challenger against these persons with his full endorsement. It does not stop there. Governor Abbott has now taken the unprecedented step of self-proclaiming Sunday, October 15, 2023, as “School Choice Sunday”, asking for church leaders to support vouchers during their morning worship.
Let me be clear, this is not an attack on Governor Abbott, whom I have strongly supported. This is just information on a highly controversial scheme that may not be good for Texas. Every dollar spent on private schooling is a dollar not spent on public schools which already are way underfunded. Currently, Texas ranks #42 in the nation in per-pupil spending.
The following are common themes that many legislators are using to tickle our ears:
“This is the civil rights issue of our time.”—This is an attempt to use less fortunate families to paint a narrative that economically disadvantaged students will be able to attend private schools. This may or may not be so, because the ‘devil is in the details.’ The current discussions mention an $8,000 voucher (or ESA), which will not cover the $10,613 average state private school tuition which does not include enrollment fees, athletic fees, uniform fees, breakfast, lunch, transportation, etc. So, while this may help, this certainly still limits many poor students from attending. Because of this fact, many argue that a voucher program further segregates the ‘rich from the poor’. *Note: Only public schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education (FAPE for students with disabilities), maintain enrollment for students with behavioral issues, provide transportation, and provide meals for economically disadvantaged children. Public schools must accept every child.
“Vouchers will allow the parent to choose the school that best fits their need.”—This is nothing new. Parents already have the choice to attend public or private schools. The difference is that the private school can reject a parent's request for any reason.
“Funding is at an all-time high in Texas”—Embarrassingly, this is true. So why not properly fund the system we currently have? Texas funds public schools at an average of $4000 less per child than the national average… which is about 50% less.
“Competition makes public schools better.”—Okay…I will agree if and only if the thousands of school laws, mandates, enrollment requirements, accountability, and funding are equal for all. Otherwise, competition and comparison do not exist when different standards apply.
“I am not for vouchers but I do support ESAs.”—This is just political jargon and double talk, when these are one in the same thing.
“School choice will increase teacher pay.”—Hmmm…maybe for the private sector. Or, maybe this is how it is explained to fund a public school teacher pay increase only if a voucher plan is attached to a bill.
“State education money should follow the student.”—Within the public and charter school systems, it does. When students transfer from one district to another, the funding does transfer and follows the student. Some legislators discuss this matter as if that part is not happening. What their intention is to say is that state funds should fund private schools, religious schools, and other types of schools just the same or more as public. They will not publicly say this due to the pushback on separation of church and state issues. Once again, I am not vocalizing my opinion on this matter, just sharing basic factual information surrounding these topics.
“Our schools are for education, not indoctrination.”—This is an interesting theme that really aggravates me the most. A very small percentage of schools do indeed have agendas and lean into a direction that most do not agree with. However, the other 99% of public schools are ‘painted with the same brush’ which is certainly unfair and not at all accurate. Those very limited schools should be the target…not the rest of us. We should all have more discernment when watching and listening to social media and news reports. We cannot let media deceive us to believe that ‘if one does it, they all do’. This is not true deductive reasoning.
“The numbers don’t lie: A majority of Texans from rural, urban, and suburban communities support school choice.”—This conclusion is a manipulation of surveys based on the wording of the questions used to gather data. For example: If the question is, “Do you believe a parent should have the power to choose the school that is best for their child?”, then most parents, including myself, would say “yes”. However, if the question is worded as, “Do you believe that public tax money should pay for students to attend private school through a voucher system and not have equal accountability and transparency as public schools?”, then I believe the results would be dramatically different. Once again, there is manipulation to sell an idea with little to no details. One would never sign a contract to buy a home without knowing what it looks like.
Governor Abbott has vowed to make vouchers/school choice/ESAs a priority in this upcoming special session. If it is not passed, he promises to hold another special session. Then if it is not passed, he will take it to the voters. Either way, this is certainly a highly controversial issue that most do not fully understand…and your public schools will once again be the victims of collateral damage. Either way…he will prohibit teacher pay and increased funding for public schools, or he will force this idea on Texans and cut additional funding needed.
So, this whole issue is a big deal for public schools that already fight for what is best for all Texas children. Hopefully, this blog will provide you with some things to think about and to make your own conclusions. We will see how this issue plays out in the near future.
May God grant us wisdom,
Donny Webb, Superintendent