Tuesday, September 26, 2023

School choice in Texas... It's not over yet

Texans' love for their public schools was tested this past legislative session. In April 2023, the Texas State Senate passed a bill that would provide families with a $8,000 credit they could use to send their kids to private schools or put towards homeschooling expenses. This school voucher movement has gained enormous traction recently, particularly in conservative states, as parents and politicians "battle public schools over books in the libraries, the teaching of race and racism and transgender issues." 

Texas is not alone in this movement. More than 12 states have currently adopted some form of voucher program. Across the border in Oklahoma, the state board of education is discussing the approval of the first religious charter school in the United States. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1, expanding school choice options by eliminating financial eligibility restrictions and the enrollment cap. 

While the school voucher proposal in Texas failed in May 2023, it is likely not the end of the road for the Texas school choice movement. As recently as September 23, 2023, Texas Senator Ted Cruz stated that the domestic issue he cares most about is school choice. Additionally, a Texas House committee recently proposed a "path forward" for the movement on a smaller scale that prioritizes "high-need" students. 

The voucher bill failed partly due to the alliance between Democrats and rural Republicans in the Texas State House. Historically, this coalition of House Democrats and rural Republican representatives voted together to ensure funding for Texas public schools. Despite this longstanding alliance, the future of the school voucher program in Texas remains uncertain. As such, it is worthwhile to address the impact the school choice movement may have on rural districts in Texas. 

Texans' support for public schools is deep-rooted, particularly in rural districts, as these public schools are not only some of the biggest local employers but are also commonly the center of community life. Texas has more schools in rural areas than any other state (more than 2,000 campuses) and employs a Task Force "charged with identifying current challenges and best practices for rural school districts statewide." 

According to The Heritage Foundation, some of the highest levels of support for education savings accounts (another term for school vouchers) in Texas came from rural counties. It is worth noting, this news source is a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. The poll numbers that The Heritage Foundation is reporting are not necessarily lies. But Graydon Hicks III, a superintendent in Fort Davis, a rural community in Texas, thinks some of the rural "support" for the bill arose from the complicated language of the bill itself.

Previous blog posts discussed Fort Davis, Hicks, and the school choice movement in depth. You can read them here and here.

Hicks is struggling to keep Fort Davis' lights on. The school district doesn't have an art teacher, a cafeteria, a librarian, bus routes, or a track. Given that Fort Davis cannot afford to hire security, Hicks and 11 others carry firearms in place of a security guard. Fort Davis' district only has 184 students enrolled from pre-K to 12th grade. Since every student who leaves the school represents a more significant proportion of revenue compared to larger urban schools, Fort Davis is particularly vulnerable to the school voucher system. 

In addition to Fort Davis, those in Robert Lee, Texas, are concerned about the school voucher movement. The school is already struggling with a "razor-thin" budget that is heavily reliant on revenue from attendance numbers. Given that there are only around 18 students per grade, any drop in enrollment "can force rural schools like Robert Lee to make hard decisions."

While the House Bill failed during the regular session, some Texas lawmakers are committed to creating a school voucher program one way or another. It is safe to say that the battle of school choice laws is not over in Texas. 


Isha Sharma said...

This was a very interesting read, Caitlin! I was unaware that so many states had passed some form of voucher program. It also saddens me to know that the push for a voucher program is because of a diverse and inclusive curriculum being taught in public schools. Other than redirecting funding from public schools, I wonder how else Texas plans to fund this voucher system, and if it is even sustainable to do so. This would definitely have a disparate impact on rural communities as I imagine there are not many private schools there or parents able to homeschool their children. It seems like another case when rural communities are not being heard or addressed.

Natalie M. said...

This is a fascinating post, Caitlin! I had no idea some legislators in the state of Texas do not prefer to send Texan youth to public schools and would rather opt for a homeschool or private school programs. As someone who was fortunate enough to attend public school up until college, I had a wonderful experience and received a quality education. However, I understand that my situation is unique; many public schools nationwide are underfunded, understaffed, and overpopulated with students. My hope is Texas will better fund its public schools instead of providing families with home or private school vouchers if the program is passed. I assume the battle for quality education will continue (and will perhaps worsen) in the coming years. My hope is that Texan legislators ultimately stop fighting over book banning, drag shows, and gender affirming care, and will focus on properly funding Texas public schools and ensuring every student in Texas receives a quality education.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's an update on what is happening on this front in Arkansas, where a recent review revealed that 95% of the students taking advantage of the state's equivalent of vouchers were already attending private schools--so the state is now subsidizing what parents had already been willing to pay for.