The contentious issue of school choice is set to be a flashpoint at the Texas legislature, with several bills already filed and many more expected to come before the filing deadline in March.
Speaking in favor of school choice for Texas families at an event in Corpus Christi on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott touted the increase in teacher salaries and public school district budgets under his administration. He noted, however, that funding was not the only critical issue in education.
“It’d be wrong if we said that more money always leads to better results. It just doesn’t,” he said, before highlighting the grievances of parents who feel trapped in their school district, many of whom are frustrated by poor student outcomes and a perceived ideological bias in curriculums.
“Schools are for education, not indoctrination,” said Abbott.
That sentiment was echoed by a spokesperson for Dallas Jewish Conservatives, who told The Dallas Express, “We’ve seen an uptick in liberal ideology, gender fluidity, [Critical Race Theory], and the sexualization of our youth taking place in public schools.”
“Many people think that private and charter schools offer a much better education and do a better job at allocating resources and dollars for programs and tools that kids really need,” he added.
Such issues have animated parents and education activists around the state, including in North Texas, where the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), even with a $2.2 billion budget, could not manage to graduate more than 81.1% of its Class of 2022 on time and had only 41% of its students score at grade level on last year’s STAAR exam, despite the best efforts of its hardworking teachers.
Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) filed a bill last Friday that would create privately-sponsored education savings accounts for low-income families looking to put their children in private schools.
“This is a separate fund from money budgeted for our public school system and it is my hope that this legislation will transform the trajectory of students from challenging backgrounds,” Shaheen explained.
Another bill, filed by Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston), would allocate taxpayer dollars to some families to pay for private school tuition and education-related therapies.
When asked if his bill would lead to public schools losing funding, Middleton suggested, “Every single public school student will continue to be 100% funded. It doesn’t change those formulas at all. What this does do is empower parents who want something different.”
In Texas, state taxpayer funding for public education is determined by the “number of students in average daily attendance” instead of a fixed budget for school districts across the board.
Still, some opponents of school choice fear that more students attending private schools would force smaller districts in rural Texas to make budget cuts.
“When you lose enrollment, you have less money and have to make adjustments,” said Michael Lee, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools. “The only way you can do that is through personnel cuts.”
Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) agrees, having previously promised to fight any bill that includes taxpayer-funded education “vouchers” for private school tuition. King represents a rural district that wraps around the Northeast outskirts of Amarillo to the Southwest side of Lubbock.
“If I have anything to say about it, it’s dead on arrival,” King said last year at an event. “It’s horrible for rural Texas. It’s horrible for all of Texas.”
Teacher unions and many Democratic state lawmakers have also typically been weary of alternatives to taxpayer-funded public schools.
Rena Honea, president of Alliance/AFT, the teacher union representing DISD educators, told The Dallas Express, “The real school choice this Legislature has is whether to fund our real public schools appropriately or further starve them by implementing private and charter school voucher schemes.”
She cited a poll that found roughly 89% of Texans were satisfied with their local public school and supported increasing teacher pay.
“All of that is endangered when we pull money out of public education and give it to private schools,” she claimed.
Gov. Abbott concluded his remarks on Tuesday with a fiery endorsement of school choice:
“Hundreds of thousands of people move to Texas every year because of the freedom and opportunity that Texas provides—and because in Texas, we don’t like government running our lives. Parents know that same freedom and opportunity should apply to their children’s education.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has also offered ringing endorsements of advancing school choice, denying the idea that the programs would negatively impact rural schools, as previously reported by The Dallas Express.