School Choice Discourse Continues Ahead of Runoffs

Protesters hold signs
Protesters hold signs in front of the Governor's Mansion during a rally against school vouchers | Image by Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — Though a majority of Texans appear to favor school choice legislation, some are still skeptical of directing taxpayer money to private schools.

Anna Brining, a retired elementary school principal who worked in Dallas ISD, spoke with The Dallas Express at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. She claimed school choice would not solve many of the issues driving some parents to seek public school alternatives for their children, such as the perceived politicization of curricula, arguing that pulling in taxpayer money would make private schools subject to curriculum requirements.

“I’m very concerned about people’s use of school choice as a fix-all for education. Because what you have to look at is the funding,” Brining said. “If there is a voucher, or the money follows the child in school choice, what money is that? Is it federal education dollars? So, if my child goes to Ursuline, and I want to do school choice, and the money follows the kid, guess what, that’s more than likely federal funds.”

“Any private school that accepts federal funds has to follow federal law,” Brining added.

As previously reported by DX, Mandy Drogin, campaign director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has countered such claims, pointing to the language of the school choice bills under consideration by the Texas Legislature last session.

“There are no federal dollars, there are no federal strings attached, and there are no limits on the exercise of religious or institutional values. That’s all been carefully crafted by legal scholars,” Drogin told DX. “We are not empowering the government to step in and take over or influence. We’re simply saying … that [parents] should have the autonomy to make this choice.”

Brining expressed skepticism that any law designed to keep federal taxpayer money from becoming a problem for private schools could actually do so. She claimed that property tax money, which is the primary source of state funding for public education in Texas, cannot really be tracked to the schools. “If you track those property tax dollars, where do they go? They’re not going to the classroom. They’re not going to the district,” she argued.

Still, others who spoke with DX seem to think that the state of public education warrants whatever risks — real or imagined — are posed by using taxpayer money to fund students’ private school education.

Ted Gambordella, a parent in the Dallas area whose children are zoned for Highland Park ISD, said he was generally supportive of anything that helps students get out of Dallas ISD, one of the poorer-performing school systems in the state.

“DISD is atrocious, so anything we can do to save kids from it sounds like a great thing to me,” he told DX.

The Texas Education Agency awarded Dallas ISD a score of 59 out of 100 for College, Career, and Military Readiness in its accountability report for the 2021-2022 school year. That same year, nearly 20% of graduating seniors failed to obtain a diploma within four years, and only 41% of students scored at grade level on their STAAR exams.

Gambordella did, however, express some of the same concerns as Brining, noting that even state funding could come with strings attached.

“I’m worried it’s a Trojan horse to eventually force private institutions to obey state policy,” he said.

Still, Gambordella said he had many friends with children about to start grade school who are zoned for Dallas ISD and are hoping their parents or grandparents can help them afford private school.

“Zero will stay in Dallas come kindergarten if they can’t afford private,” he told DX.

As previously reported by DX, school choice featured heavily in the Texas Republican primary earlier this month, with Gov. Greg Abbott targeting incumbents who voted to strip a school choice provision from an education spending bill last year. While pro-school choice challengers secured some major victims, a number of races will be heading to a runoff in May.

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