AUSTIN, Texas – Van Vleck ISD has just over 1,000 students. John O’Brien has been in the district for 23 years and has worked his way up to Superintendent Emeritus.
Van Vleck is approximately 75 miles outside of Houston, Texas’ largest city. The city has a few private and charter schools, but most children go to public schools. If Texas passes a school choice program this session, O’Brien said his district could lose some teachers.
“We’re going to have to get rid of employees, so to speak, or lay off staff,” he said.
That’s because school choice programs typically take taxpayer money out of public schools and make it available to parents for a different type of education. The money doesn’t belong to the school; rather, it belongs to the student.
“The reason I don’t advocate [school vouchers] is on the ‘level field,'” said O’Brien. “As a former coach, we always want to have the same game and the same rules, among other things. And right now in the state of Texas, the rules are not the same between public school, charter school and private school. In the public schools we are held at a much higher level. And so, to me, the principle of taking taxpayers’ money and moving them to a charter school that doesn’t have to be responsible for the same things we do, or to a private school that doesn’t follow the same rules we follow, I don’t think is fair. That’s not fair to our schools, the public schools, but it’s also not fair to the taxpayers. They take tax money and put it somewhere else.”
Texas parents already have free choice. They can send their child to a private school if they are licensed and can afford it. What makes a federally sponsored school choice program different is that parents can divert taxpayer dollars from public schools to any educational option they see fit for their child, including homeschooling.
“The money that goes toward a student’s education goes toward that student’s education,” said Andrew Campanella, president of the National School Choice Awareness Foundation. “It’s a better use of resources to ensure that money is being spent effectively to educate a child in a school or learning environment specifically chosen for the child by his or her parents.”
Campanella described the school choice as a government-sponsored scholarship program that helps make private education more affordable.
“I don’t see private school election programs as tax breaks or giveaways for wealthy taxpayers. I see it as just the opposite: a level playing field so that all children can attend schools that best meet their children’s needs,” he said.
But O’Brien said programs like this create an uneven playing field for children.
“I don’t need funds that should be used for all the kids that are being moved away to go to a private school down the road,” O’Brien said. “That is our greatest concern.”
Larger school districts also do not want school choice. According to the Dallas Morning News, Dallas ISD says it needs more money, not less, to pay for school safety initiatives.
But Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. gov. Dan Patrick say this is the year Texas will create a school choice program. In the past, rural Republicans and Democrats have not supported it.
Matthew Wilson, associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said it’s a big deal that Patrick is on board.
“He can make sure this goes through the Senate and I think that’s really critical to getting anything done on this matter,” he said.
Wilson added that there is a big boost in school choice right now because many parents have been dissatisfied with public schools during the pandemic. And there was outrage about what students learn in school and read in libraries.
“That’s given a real boost to the school election movement, and I think it makes it more likely that something will happen this term than in previous terms,” Wilson said.
If a school election program were to pass, there would need to be an accountability system so the money isn’t mismanaged.
“There has to be some kind of verification: people have to submit receipts, an acknowledgment. Or, depending on how they structure this, the money could go directly from the state to the educational institution to fund a student’s tuition,” Wilson said. “There are different ways to set this up. But you know, like everything the state does, there will be some oversight bureaucracy necessary to ensure that people are spending the funds for the purpose for which they were allocated.”
Skeptics say Texas public schools are already underfunded, and taking money from them would only make it worse. On Tuesday, Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, introduced a bill that would increase teachers’ salaries in Texas by $15,000. He said teacher salaries in Texas lagged the national average by $7,500. While a $15,000 raise may not be realistic, Wilson said Democrats and Republicans could negotiate to get the best of both worlds: raises and school choice.
“It depends on whether Republicans think they need any Democratic votes to do that. And that’s mostly a question of how much unity there is within the Republican faction on whatever coupon program eventually comes out,” he said. “The rationale for this is that they’re dealing with a big surplus, so there’s quite a lot of money to spend. And that creates some opportunities that wouldn’t exist in a fiscally tighter situation. So you may feel like there is money for a variety of different things. But it will be interesting to see what kind of trade-offs have taken place between teacher salary increases in school choice and the problems.”
Wilson added that if the school choice issue isn’t addressed early enough in the session, it may not make it to the finish line.
“It’s the kind of program that’s sufficiently complex,” he said. “If they make an effort to iron it out in the last few days of the session, it’s likely to fall by the wayside. I think that’s the thing to look out for: what’s the timeline for trading?”
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