Students deserve school choice, and adults should unify to deliver

Children from charter and private schools all over Texas turned out for the 85th legislative session's National School Choice Rally on Jan. 24, 2017. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

It’s past time for adults to unite behind a proven school reform agenda that puts students first: a universal school choice program that empowers students and parents with the opportunity to attend their school of choice and get the best education possible. Contrary to critics, school choice is not anti-public school — but pro-student. It's time to move past those tired, old arguments and move forward for students. It's time for choice opponents and public school professionals to join the fight for school choice.

Choice opponents allege that school choice programs cost taxpayers money and divert funding from public schools into unaccountable private education. That’s simply not true. From 1990 to 2006, a study found choice programs saved state governments $22 million and reduced local public school districts’ instructional costs by $422 million. Other choice models, such as privately funded tax credit and private scholarship programs, would not cost taxpayers anything. Texas could even design its choice program to increase money to public schools.

Additionally, Texas will demand academic and financial accountability. For example, to be choice program participants, private schools must satisfy eligibility criteria such as accreditation or submitting independent audits. Accountability is essential to ensure we protect taxpayers and students alike. We also need to start thinking of parents and their choices as the ultimate accountability measure.

Some claim school choice harms public schools. Evidence suggests the opposite: School choice improves public schools, leading to better outcomes for all students. Competition makes this country great by increasing quality while lowering costs. It is no surprise that competition's powerful market force also improves education.

School choice improved nearby public school performance, 29 out of 31 empirical studies found. In Florida and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, competition helped increase public school student test scores when facing a threat of losing students to private schools. In Maine and Vermont, competition increased public high school students’ standardized test scores. None of the 31 studies found that school choice harmed public school students. Nor has there ever been an exodus from public schools after a choice program was implemented. Local neighborhood schools will always be the center of education.

Contrary to critics' claims, school choice doesn't just help affluent families. It is not the wealthy who benefit from choice programs but low-income families. The wealthy already have school choice — they can afford private school tuition or to move to a ZIP code to shop for the best public schools. Low-income Texans are not afforded that same opportunity.

For example, San Antonio’s successful Edgewood Voucher Program, which ran from 1998 to 2008 targeted low-income families in a low-performing school district. Ninety-eight percent of participating students were minorities, and 97 percent were economically disadvantaged. During the program’s first four years, participating students' reading scores increased 21.2 percent, and math, 28 percent. Many of those students were first-generation high school graduates, and 92 percent who graduated enrolled in college. Choice programs give low-income families the necessary resources for a better education and to escape low performing schools.

Learning from 30 states' best practices of over 60 choice programs and being smart with program design gives us an opportunity to succeed on behalf of students, taxpayers and our traditional public schools. We are only limited by are our imagination and collective will to band together.

We must give students not served by their public school, regardless of their reasons, another option. I want every student to love learning and wake up excited to go to school. A universal school choice program is just one solution, and I remain committed to many other reforms, like school finance and limiting unnecessary state mandates.

Change is hard. Public school professionals are understandably nervous. However, we all should embrace change as the necessary means for improving schools and putting students first. I thank the public school professionals for their work on students' behalf and invite them to join the renewed push of empowering students and families through school choice.

Don Huffines

Former state senator