Republicans are pushing for school choice. Their arguments are a throwback to the ’90s.

The language around education savings accounts mirrors the push for charter schools decades ago.

By Sarah AschOctober 11, 2023 1:40 pm, ,

Education savings accounts are again on the agenda for a special legislative session. Sometimes described as school vouchers, these accounts would direct state funds to private schools.

Some of the language being used by Republicans during this political push harkens back to previous decades in Texas politics.

Phrases like “school choice” and “education freedom” were a big part of the push in the 1990s to legalize charter schools.

Bill Zeeble, a senior reporter at KERA in North Texas, reported on this repeated rhetoric.

“I hear ‘parent freedom.’ I hear ‘school choice.’ We’ve heard it before, and I think we’re hearing it again because it worked before – charters were approved in 1995,” Zeeble said. “Charters have been growing ever since, and we’ve seen an outflow of student population to charter schools. And the independent school districts have complained they’ve been losing students ever since charters were approved. So in part, they’ve been forced to adjust, too.”

Zeeble said he spoke to experts who study education to get a better sense of how charter schools and school vouchers have worked — or not worked — in other states.

“When it comes to vouchers and charters, the place to look is New Orleans, because after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school system became the focus for charters, for vouchers, for everything new,” he said. “The entire education system was reshaped as a result of rebuilding entire systems after Hurricane Katrina, which was in 2005.”

Zeeble interviewed Joshua Cowen, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, who said vouchers in New Orleans are not a success story. Cowen said school vouchers New Orleans had roughly twice the negative harm on test scores after Katrina than the COVID-19 pandemic did more recently.

A key difference between vouchers and charter schools is that vouchers send kids to private schools which are not required to follow the same state education policies that charter and public schools follow. 

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“While charter students still have to take state mandated tests, private schools don’t,” Zeeble said. “Private schools don’t have to follow any state funding or oversight required rules. University of Houston Education Professor Duncan Klussmann, who used to be a school district superintendent at Spring Branch ISD, says it’s not a level playing field and he wants one.”

Klussmann said he feels it is counterproductive to hold public schools and charter schools to this very high standard of performance on the one hand, but on the other hand to give $8,000 to someone else with no accountability. 

Klussmann is not alone, according to Zeeble. While Gov. Greg Abbott pushes for education savings accounts with language about choice and freedom, Zeeble said educators and district leaders are getting frustrated.  

“If you’re an educator, you’ve heard it before and say there is nothing new here,” Zeeble said. “Public school superintendents say they’re still not getting the per student allotment that they need to adequately educate their public school students — that’s the overwhelming majority of students in Texas — and that these school districts are underfunded. And yet now lawmakers are talking about sending these public dollars to private schools with no accountability. And they’re quietly fuming.”

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