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Amid the ongoing special legislative session, school voucher supporters and opponents debated public school funding and private school accountability during a Texas Tribune event Wednesday in Austin.
Education savings accounts — a voucher-like program that would give participating students $8,000 of taxpayer money for private school tuition and other educational expenses — has been a top political priority for Gov. Greg Abbott. Last week, the Texas Senate voted to approve its priority voucher bill and sent it to the House, where Democrats and rural Republicans have historically united to block voucher legislation.
John Emerich, superintendent of Crockett Independent School District in East Texas, said vouchers are a “no-go” for him because private schools do not have to abide by achievement measures like public schools do, particularly the annual State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test.
“The money coming to public schools right now is highly scrutinized, both academically and financially,” Emerich said. “To me, it’s a nonstarting issue to even talk about my tax dollars going to private schools without having those same accountability standards that we do.”
However, Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, argued that school choice legislation would implement the “ultimate form of accountability.” If a private school underperforms, families can choose to move their child — and the public funding that comes with their child — back to a public school, he said.
“I think the better form of accountability is the bottom up — people voting with their feet for the schools that align with their values and best meet their needs,” DeAngelis said.
He added that public funding already goes to private educational institutions by way of state financial aid grants for students attending private universities. Voucher opponents have pointed out that these grants are reserved for low-income individuals, while the Senate-approved voucher bill in the Texas Legislature would be open to almost all Texas families.
To “level the playing field” with private schools, DeAngelis said, state lawmakers could amend the voucher bill to deregulate public schools, removing certain benchmarks or the STAAR test.
But Norma Cantú, professor of education and law at the University of Texas at Austin, said public school standardized tests are mandated by federal law. In general, Cantú said, she opposes making significant changes to public schools under a short special session timeline.
“Think of all the add-ons that public schools do that make school attendance sticky, like extracurricular programs, like theater, like band, like honors and recognitions. And think about the changes that schools have to be nimble to react to, with technology and access to Wi-Fi,” Cantú said. “All of this makes me think that coming up with a 30-day deadline on a special session to overturn and disrupt and create chaos is not a good process and will produce an even worse result.”
Abbott, who sets the special session agenda, has directed lawmakers to work only on educational savings accounts — promising to add public school funding and long-awaited teacher raises if a voucher bill passes.
Voucher opponents have argued it should be the other way around: lawmakers should fully fund public schools before considering any voucher program that would potentially siphon money away from public schools.
Though Emerich would support initiatives such as reforming the STAAR test, he agreed that public school funding should be the top legislative priority.
“Sounds like we can come to some points that we might agree on, but right now, doing what's best for kids is being held hostage by this session,” Emerich said. “I don't think there’s anyone realistically that looks at, ‘Is there adequate funding for public schools?’ and thinks that that is OK right now.”
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