Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Private schools do not view themselves in opposition to public schools.
That’s how Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, opened a Texas Tribune event about education savings accounts on Thursday morning.
And yet tension permeated the hourlong conversation about education savings accounts and school vouchers, which have emerged as priorities for the 2023 legislative session. Panelists for and against the policy, which would give parents the option to use state tax dollars to enroll their children in schools other than their assigned district public school, remained steadfast on their stances. Neither side budged to find a middle ground.
“I would say that what we are talking about is the middle ground,” Colangelo said. “If you look at the profile of the student that takes advantage of these programs in other states, it’s not the student that’s on a football team or in the band or in these exceptional programs in public schools. It’s the kid that can’t quite find a place in their public school and needs another option.”
Nationwide, 32 states and Washington, D.C., have a program that helps families send their students to private schools, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for these policies. Colangelo insisted that these programs by and large benefit students.
But panelist Michelle Smith, the executive director of Raise Your Hand Texas, pointed to states like Louisiana, where research has found that student achievement declined after a voucher program was put in place.
Smith also emphasized that taxpayer dollars should not be diverted to a system without public accountability.
“It is the responsibility of the state to make sure that 5.4 million kids are getting the education that they need,” Smith said. “And I don’t think just handing them out to other vendors or to other environments where we can’t make sure every kid is being served is the best use of our taxpayer dollars.”
Public schools are held accountable for student outcomes through the STAAR test, or the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Students are annually tested in different subjects, and schools and districts are graded on student achievement, student progress and addressing learning gaps. The STAAR results weigh the most heavily.
Private schools are not required to test their students in the same way, though many do go through a rigorous accreditation process.
Already, several bills that would expand education options for families have been filed by Texas lawmakers, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick this week included “empowering parental rights, including school choice,” in his list of priority bills. “School choice” is an umbrella term that includes a variety of policies, including education savings accounts and vouchers, that give parents the option of enrolling children in schools other than their assigned district public school. It can also include online schools, charter schools, which are public schools but run outside the traditional school district system, and magnet schools that are run by school districts but offer targeted programs.
Historically, the legislation has passed easily through the Senate but stalled in the House, largely because rural Republicans vote against the policies. The issue appears to have received more attention this year, in part because of a growing national movement to advance parental rights in education. That movement has spanned topics ranging from critical race theory to what books should be available in public school libraries to whether students should be allowed to use specified pronouns without parental consent.
Panelist Randan Steinhauser, national school choice director for Young Americans for Liberty, said that this movement is growing because parents are tired of being told what to do when it comes to their children’s education.
“It’s an insult to parents to think that they should not be the primary educator,” Steinhauser said. “We’re at a point right now where parents have had enough and they are the ones on the front lines.”
The impact of school choice policies on public school funding also leaves public school leaders worried. In Texas, public schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled and the daily attendance on campus. Already, Texas lags behind other states in per-pupil funding. If students leave public schools to use an education savings account toward a private school, public schools would lose dollars.
Scott Muri, the superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District, said schools are already so financially strapped that teachers pay for school supplies out of their own pockets.
“If teachers have to go to Walmart and use their own money to buy basic supplies for their classroom, there isn’t enough of an investment in public education,” Muri said.
Disclosure: Texas Tribune events are supported by corporate sponsors and through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.