To make Texas schools great, ditch the education savings accounts

While the nation waits to see if its next secretary of education will have the opportunity to further a pro-voucher, pro-charter school agenda that funnels taxpayer’s dollars into private and religious schools, we Texans will have front row seats as this same show plays out during the upcoming legislative session.

Last Tuesday, a National School Choice week rally took place on the south steps of the Texas Capitol. Gov. Greg Abbott spoke passionately to school choice advocates, proclaiming that “the governor of Texas needs a choice” to sign such legislation into law. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick backed a private school choice bill in 2015, but it didn’t get a vote in the House. For this legislative session, Patrick has adopted “education savings accounts” as the new voucher vehicle for lawmakers. According to Patrick, these accounts would give parents the opportunity to use money that would otherwise go to public schools for private, religious or home schools of their choice.

Whether you call them education savings accounts or school vouchers, diverting taxpayer dollars so that individuals can send their children to tuition-based institutions violates the Texas Constitution. “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools, “ states Article 7, Section 1 of that document.

In Nevada’s expansive education savings account system, families are given a maximum of $5,600 per year to spend on “educational expenditures,” even though the 2015 Nevada Education Data Book reported that state’s per-pupil spending for public education to be $8,400. According to an article published on May 6, 2016, Texas’s per-pupil spending — which ranks 38th in the nation — is $9,500. While dollar amounts for the legislative proposal have not been established, it seems highly unlikely that Texas families will be given $9,500 per child to spend on the education they choose. Even if families were given as much as $6,000 to spend per child, they’d likely come up short when choosing a non-public alternative; according to the Private School Review, the average cost of private school in the state of Texas is $8,500.

If we are to uphold the Texas Constitution, we need to be clear on what the “support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools” means. Giving families taxpayer money to spend on private institutions has nothing to do with maintaining public free schools.

And we have evidence from other states — Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the home state of Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos — that shows how voucher programs are failing students, particularly those from low-income families. One reason is accessibility. In the city of Austin, nine of the top ten private schools are located west of I-35. It’s questionable whether a ninth-grader from the Dove Springs neighborhood in southeast Austin could find transportation to the Regents School located across town. It’s even harder to imagine once you consider that Regents’ tuition comes in at over $16,000 per year, while the median income in Dove Springs is $30,000 below the median for the entire city of Austin. Would an education savings account make up the difference? Or would those accounts simply go to families that can already afford to send their children to private school?

Our elected officials need to uphold the state constitution and offer choices within public education that benefit all students. We must rally for changes that are proven to work in public schools: smaller class sizes, better-paid teachers, quality professional development, and policies that address the issues of poverty and inequity. Yes, there are plenty of changes that need to be made to our state’s education system, but none of them include a program that will benefit some while devastating the liberties and rights of others.

Stephanie Noll

Writer, lecturer, Texas State University