A scholarship to help students trapped in failing public schools attend a school of their choice is near the top of the legislative agenda for Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Dan Patrick, the Houston Republican who chairs the Senate Public Education Committee.
In his State of the State address this year, Perry advocated for "scholarship programs that give students a choice, especially those who are locked into low-performing schools." At a December news conference with Dewhurst, Patrick proposed a scholarship program that would allow students to attend any school, including those outside of the public education system.
"It is immoral to say to any student or any parent, ‘You must go to a poor-performing school,’” he said.
But Texas has had a program that allows students in struggling public schools to transfer to better-performing campuses nearby since 1995, and it is dramatically underused. The Public Education Grants initiative provides students in schools that are designated “unacceptable” with a slightly higher amount of funding to attend better ones nearby. The new school district, if it chooses to accept the student, receives a 10 percent increase in the state funding for that student.
In 2012, 566 of the state’s roughly 8,500 campuses had either an accountability rating of “unacceptable” or had fewer than half of their students pass state standardized tests in language arts and science — the two measures the state uses to determine whether students there can qualify for the grants.
That amounted to about 400,000 eligible students. Of those, 824 — two-tenths of a percent — took advantage of it that year. Through seven years of Texas Education Agency data, the number of students enrolled in the program has never reached 1 percent of those eligible.
“The idea at the time was to create choice for parents, and for children that were struggling,” said Mike Moses, a former Dallas Independent School District superintendent who served as Gov. George W. Bush’s education commissioner when the state enacted the law. “It has never been heavily subscribed to.”
The program has not attracted wider enrollment, he said, primarily because of the cost of transportation and parents’ desire to keep children closer to home in neighborhood schools.
Students must fend for themselves in getting to their new schools if they transfer under the program. Because districts are geographically determined, that can mean traveling much farther each day. The state does not provide funding for transportation, and it does not require students’ home districts or their new districts to provide it.
Parents tend to prefer the improvement of community schools over the option of their children attending a new one across town, Moses said.
“Most people want their neighborhood schools to perform,” he said, “and very few want to put their child on a bus and say, 'Go across town to another school.'”
Patrick said that the issue of transportation was one that required “careful study” — and that there should not be any barrier for students to attend their schools of choice.
But he said that in his experience, in search of better educational opportunity for their children, most parents are willing “to come a long way in getting their children to school.”
He added that he did not believe that under-enrollment in the existing grants led to any conclusion about the need for a wider program.
“We have 100,000 people on the waitlist for charters. I just look at the facts, and I see there are roughly 400,000 students that can look at a PEG grant,” he said. “That tells me that we aren't getting the information out at the local level."
If students apply for transfers under the program, there is also no guarantee that the better-performing districts accept them. It is difficult to estimate how significant an obstacle that is because the Texas Education Agency does not collect data on students who apply and are denied.
Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email that some districts might make it easier to transfer under other policies, causing students to opt for those routes instead.
She added that another reason for low enrollment could be that under the state’s accountability system, a school could be labeled unacceptable because certain subgroups, based on demographics, underperform on standardized tests. But such a rating, while making every student who attends that campus eligible for a grant, does not always translate to widespread dissatisfaction with the school’s overall performance.
“Most people who have children enrolled in eligible schools never seek a transfer,” she said. “They are happy where they are."