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IS 2017 THE YEAR TEXAS LAUNCHES REAL EDUCATION REFORM?

There are 30 states in the U.S. that offer various school choice programs which include education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, school vouchers, and individual tax credits and deductions. Did you know that Texas, the proud, defiant bastion of freedom, the second largest state by population in the United States, does not provide educational choice? Considering the state has over 1,000 schools that have not met acceptable academic standards as measured by state tests, Texas which held 43th place in national educational rankings in 2016 is ripe for major educational reforms.

Big Guns Behind School Choice in Texas

This is a biennial legislative year in Texas.  The 85th legislative session opened for business in Austin on January 10th. Proponents of “school choice” in Texas have struggled for years to pass meaningful reforms in education choice for Texas families. This year may be the year with big guns organized and ready to win the battle.

In January a large, enthusiastic gathering of students, teachers, parents, and school choice advocates were present at the 2017 National School Choice Week rally at the Austin capitol. Both Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunch advocate for education choice, attended the rally.

Governor Abbott highlighted his commitment to the cause in his state of the state address:
“Parents should be able to choose a school that is right for their child.” In his press conference on January 30th, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had this to say: “Texas lags behind the rest of the country in school choice options. It is time that Texas catch up with the rest of the country and give every parent their option to pick the best school for their child.” Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn are strong supporters of school choice.

On the national scene, newly elected President Donald Trump has spoken often about education choice  and his newly confirmed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a well-known advocate for school choice and educational reform.

Educational Choice Programs

There are four major school choice programs implemented in different U.S. states:

  • Vouchers provide eligible parents a portion of public funds set aside for their children to use at a private school of their choice.
  • Educational Savings Accounts (ESA) offer parents with children in public schools educational funds they withdraw with a debit card from government-authorized savings accounts for approved expenses such as tuition, textbooks, tutoring, online learning programs. Unused funds can be rolled over from year to year.
  • Tax-credit scholarship programs allow taxpayers to receive full or partial credits when they donate to appointed non-profits that provide scholarships for private schools.
  • Individual tax credits and deductions allow parents to receive state income tax relief for approved educational expenses used in private schools, i.e. tuition, textbooks, tutors, transportation, tutoring.

ABCs of the School Choice Legislative Bills in the 2017 85th Texas State Legislative Session

There are two legislative bills given high priority by the Lt. Governor and his allies in the state Senate and House, promoting school choice in the 85th legislative session in year. Senate Bill, SB3, seeking approval for the establishment of an education savings account (ESA) program, a tax credit scholarship,  and educational expense assistance program. House Bill, HB 1335, seeks to establish an education savings account program for certain children with special needs and other educational disadvantages. The Senate bill is written to benefit all  5.2 million students enrolled in Texas public schools.  The House bill has more modest goals.

In a recent interview with Mr. Allan Parker of the Justice Foundation who has been an education reform advocate for over 20 years, Mr. Parker explained that ” SB 3, the Education Savings Account and Tax Credit Scholarships Bill, would be the most far reaching, most effective school choice program in the country.  It would substantially assist all of the 900,000 children in failing public schools across the state.  It would give every parent of a child in public school in the state educational options right away… It gives every child in public school access to their ‘trust’ funds right away.  The money is held in trust for the children, not the districts. That is why we call the elected officials of the district ‘trustees,’ not managers or a board of directors.”

Ms. Peggy Venable, another well-known advocate for education reform in Texas, served as the White House liaison for the U.S. Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan and is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. She wrote an opinion published in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal Online News last month on “education freedom”. In part she wrote, ” We have 5.2 million K-12 students in Texas public schools, and that number grows 80,000 a year. Unfortunately, 918,000 of those students are going to schools that have been deemed failing at least one of the last three years. Some schools have failed for multiple years … Thirty other states have passed more than 60 private-school choice programs. Texas is behind and our students don’t enjoy the benefits of innovation which competition would bring to education. School boards are passing resolutions opposing transparency and accountability, demanding more funding and rejecting school choice. Citizens are realizing that school administrators and their associations are lobbying against the taxpayers’ interests. And to add insult to injury,  they are using tax dollars to do that lobbying.”

I asked Allan Parker his views concerning common arguments against school choice. Firstly the complaint that school choice will hurt public education and take badly needed funds out of the public school system. He countered that the current proposed plan detailed in the SB3 will have no adverse financial impact on the school districts. With the proposed school choice plan this year, 40% of the public funds allocated for each K-12 student  would remain with the school district to pay for the schools’ debt. 60% of the funds earmarked for each student will transfer with the student to his or her new private school.

According to Matthew Ladner from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, “Texas has severe overcrowding problems in its schools and the state is adding 90,000 students per year.” Overcrowding in Texas public schools result from the growing population of immigrants moving to Texas. The problem is increasing not receding in urban centers all over Texas. School choice programs will help by offering alternatives for working families seeking better schools and will alleviate the pressure on the state and school districts to continue to fund more and more costly school campuses in fast growing metropolitan areas of Texas.

Another argument against school choice is the question raised about “accountability” of private educational institutions. Rick Casey, a columnist for the local San Antonio paper, wrote an opinion last month carping about the school choice bill working its way in the state senate chambers. According to Casey, the school choice bill is “more than weak on accountability.” He complains that the language in the bill which protects private schools from government interference, especially for religious schools, “appears to allow discrimination”. He does not believe that “the power of the free market” will ensure only high performing schools.

By discrimination, we can hazard to guess what Mr. Casey is referring to. Do religious schools discriminate against non-believers or children of families who are not members of a particular faith? Most private schools have non-discrimination policies. It is a common practice for Catholic schools to accept all persons without discriminating on the basis of race or creed. However preference is commonly accorded to members of the Catholic faith because of the shortage of available classrooms. Religiously affiliated Christian schools in San Antonio also have non-discrimination policies. From St.  Thomas Episcopalian School’s admission portal:

“St. Thomas welcomes students and families of all faiths and all types of backgrounds. We adhere to a policy of admitting students of any race, color, nationality or creed to the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded to students at the school. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, religious affiliation, national or ethnic origin in the administration of our educational policies, scholarships or school-administered programs.”

Jason Bedrick wrote an article for the  Cato Institute last December regarding accountability in education. According to Mr. Bedrick ” The schism is often portrayed as being between those who support or reject “accountability,” but this isn’t quite accurate. The real disagreement is not whether there should be accountability, but to whom schools should be held accountable: parents or bureaucrats … For decades, the term “accountability” primarily referred, in education policy circles, to government regulations intended to ensure quality. That’s because most children attend their assigned district schools, which are not directly answerable to parents and function as de facto monopolies … A distinctive feature of monopolies is lack of accountability. Because district schools are not held directly accountable to parents, some policymakers have attempted to impose accountability through top-down government regulations. Yet decades of attempts to regulate district schools into quality have had little effect. Unfortunately, too many policymakers have still come to see centralized government regulations as synonymous with “accountability” rather than an inferior alternative to direct accountability to parents, and have therefore sought to impose similar regulations on choice programs. However, regulations designed for a monopoly system are inappropriate for a market-based system.”

In response to like-minded complaints expressed by Mr. Casey and others who do not support School Choice, a brief handout published by edCHOICE explains the many benefits of the Education Savings Account proposal in Austin (SB3), a good primer for parents, grandparents and others interested in education reform in Texas. “Education Savings Account“.

The author noted: “Academic ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ mean different things for school choice. Academic accountability is best understood in terms of parental empowerment. Since parents are responsible for their children’s educational outcomes, parental choice is its own form of academic accountability. Academic transparency is between the provider and the state, and is best understood in terms of testing requirements. Because ESAs allow parents to direct funds at a variety of education options, not just a particular school, the state cannot rely solely on a private school to administer a standardized test.”

Political Obstacles to Texas Educational Reforms and School Choice

House Speaker Joe Straus has been a well-known foe of school choice. Through his powerful position as House Speaker, he has appointed surrogates to important positions like the House Education Committee chairmanships to do his bidding. This year his handpicked “enforcer” is Republican Dan Huberty of Kingwood who recently declared “school choice dead” in the Texas House. Earlier in the year, Dan Patrick accused the Texas House of killing school choice in earlier legislative sessions and he has called for a record vote this session on education reform bills.  School Choice advocates have called for Dan Huberty’s resignation and are block walking his district to inform his constituents.

What You Can Do

I asked Allan Parker how concerned Texans who believe in education reforms and educational choices for their families can get involved. He had some suggestions:

For more information without reading the Senate and House bills in their entirety, the Texas Educational Opportunity advocacy group has produced two excellent (brief) one page summaries of the bill.

SB3: Bill Breakdown. Groundbreaking Education Choice Program

HB 1335: Bill Breakdown. Education Savings Accounts: Hope for parents of special needs children and at-risk children

Get involved, stay informed, and join the single issue school choice advocacy organization, Texans for Education Opportunity

Contact your state representative in the Senate and House and let them know you are a strong advocate for education choices represented in the legislative bills, SB3 and HB 1335. You can find your state representative by going to the Texas State government search page: Find your representative

Contact Representative Dan Huberty’s office  at the capitol and let him know his own constituents are opposing him. According to Robin Lennon of the Kingwood Tea Party, “Dan Huberty is championing the Education Establishment, leaving nearly a million Texas students without hope of achieving the American Dream.”

You should also contact Diego Bernal, D-123, who represents San Antonio. Bernal is also a partisan foe of Texas educational reform and he is the Vice-Chair of the Public Education committee.

Finally, contact House Speaker Joe Straus and let him know his actions speak loudly that he is more beholden to education establishment special interests and the financial backing of wealthy political donors and he is thwarting the will of our elected majority leaders in Austin and the majority of citizens in Texas who are demanding educational reforms and school choice now.

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