From the Texas Newsroom:
“School choice” is one of the big buzzwords at the Texas Capitol this legislative session.
Most of the folks using it are talking about school vouchers — basically, allowing families to use public dollars for private school tuition.
But do vouchers work, and why is the debate a wedge issue for Texas Republicans?
Shifting political support and research outcomes
School vouchers aren’t a new idea. But over the past couple decades, voucher programs have expanded from small experiments to statewide policies.
The programs include tax breaks — where parents can write off private school tuition or donations to scholarship funds that pay for private schools — as well as subsidies or “education savings accounts,” where families receive money directly.
More than a dozen states, most recently Arizona, have passed or expanded voucher programs.
“With this legislation, Arizona is now the gold standard for educational freedom,” former governor Doug Ducey proclaimed in 2022.
He signed the bill at the Phoenix Christian Preparatory School, where high school tuition was more than $11,000. Parents at that school can now use taxpayer dollars for their kids’ private religious education.
Many of the expanded voucher programs across the country were justified, in part, with findings from pilot programs in places like Milwaukee, where low-income families received tuition subsidies starting in 1990.
At the time, vouchers were supported by equity-minded reformists on the left as well as free market thinkers on the right. The results seemed promising — at first.
Joshua Cowen is a Professor of Education Policy with Michigan State University. He’s spent years studying vouchers, and eventually announced that he opposes the policies.
“They were small programs — a couple thousand kids at the most,” he said. “Those studies did tend to show some small benefit to kids academically.”
As vouchers expanded, research results began to expose problems.
“Once you got to the real ballgame and created the fully scaled up voucher programs, the results were really catastrophic,” Cowen said.
Researchers found that voucher programs in some states led to worse test score results than natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and even the COVID-19 pandemic.
To sum it up: early voucher studies with small sample sizes showed mostly positive results, while the past decade or so of statewide results have largely shown poor outcomes, especially around test scores.
School choice research can be difficult to parse because there’s a lot of money and ideology involved.
Cowen worked on some of the early studies with Patrick Wolf, Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and the 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.
The former collaborators disagree about how to interpret findings.
Wolf has found some positive results around high school graduation and college completion. He also pointed to the effects of competition in Florida, where he said public schools’ test scores improved after they were forced to compete for students. But he has also observed negative impacts on test scores, including in Louisiana.
After an interview with Houston Public Media, Wolf shared a table with an array of voucher program studies. He said they demonstrated mostly neutral to positive outcomes.
“You’ve got the author of several of these studies … saying this is BS,” Cowen said, after he saw the table. He was lead author on one of the studies and participated in several others. He said the table misses important context — including one study that found voucher schools improved after being required to report test results. In other words, the study identified the positive effects of an accountability program, not of vouchers themselves.
The researchers accused each other of being beholden to ideology.
“If you speak to anti-choice partisans, they tend to say ‘only look at test score outcomes, only consider studies by certain authors, and only look at studies after 2005,’” Wolf wrote in an email.
“(Wolf) is on the wrong side of this,” Cowen said. “You have to suspend belief in evidence and data.”
The field of school choice research is flooded with money from wealthy donors and foundations. At times, they seek research outcomes that align with their preferred policies.
Huriya Jabbar is an associate professor in the Educational Policy and Planning program at UT Austin.
“There are a lot of ideologically based think tanks and folks associated with those things that are doing research promoting school voucher policies that often get cited in the same ways as peer-reviewed research by the media,” she said. “I just think there is a very kind of politicized landscape of school choice of research.”
She said folks are missing a key point about the purpose of education.
“I think what’s kind of getting lost in all these debates is the idea of education as a public good and not a private good,” she said. “Vouchers really shift the concept of education to a private good that benefits the individual student or family. But education is a public good, meaning that it benefits not just individuals, but society as a whole.”
The debate in Texas illustrates the shifting political enclosures around school choice. While early programs were bipartisan, the current voucher proposals are primarily supported by conservatives concerned about the specter of “indoctrination” in public schools.
The State Board of Education, for example, recently expressed support for school vouchers after years of opposition. The reversal came after the GOP increased its majority and swept out a moderate, anti-voucher Republican with the help of record-shattering contributions from an “anti-CRT” political action committee.
In an email blast to supporters, the PAC — Texans For Educational Freedom — took a victory lap.
“In November 2022, the Texas State Board of Education voted 8 to 3 against empowering parents with options through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs),” the email read. “The four newly-elected conservatives of the board, L.J. Francis, Will Hickman, Aaron Kinsey, and Julie Pickren, all backed and supported by TEF, emphasized the importance of parental involvement by removing anti-educational freedom language passed by the previous, more liberal, board.”
What is school choice?
“School choice!” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick exclaimed during his inauguration speech in January. “The Governor and I are all in on school choice.”
Towards the end of the month, Governor Greg Abbott clarified for the first time what he means by school choice.
He spoke in Corpus Christi at a “parent empowerment night” hosted by Annapolis Christian Academy, where the high school tuition is almost $11,000 per year.
“Schools are for education, not indoctrination,” he said, to a round of applause.
“Now is the time to expand ESAs to every child in the state of Texas,” he continued.
He put his stamp of approval on a specific form of vouchers — education savings accounts, where families who pull students out of public education receive money. One bill in the legislature would give families about $10,000 a year that they can spend or hold on to.
The policy would mean that the Annapolis Christian Academy parents Abbott was speaking to could use taxpayer dollars for their kids’ religious private school tuition.
If a voucher rollout in Texas mirrors what happened in Arizona, those parents would be the most likely to benefit. More than three quarters of voucher participants in Arizona already had a child enrolled in private school.
In Fort Bend ISD, southwest of Houston, superintendent Christie Whitbeck pointed out that the education system already offers multiple options.
“It just sounds good to say that a parent should have choice,” she said. “Well, yes they should, and they already do. Because we have charters everywhere, actually on top of public schools and on top of each other. And there are private schools, and there’s homeschool … But when you add this extra dimension into it, I think our concern … is that you dilute the pool of educational funding, and that pool is what we use to provide all the choices that we give.”
In San Antonio’s Northside ISD, superintendent Brian Woods — also president of the Texas School Alliance — added that most school districts offer magnet programs.
“The folks who are proposing the bills that you mentioned, they don’t think of school choice that way,” he said. “They think of students leaving independent school districts and going somewhere else, whether that’s to a charter institution or to, in this case, a private or parochial institution if you think about vouchers. So I think we have very different and very much competing definitions of what school choice actually means.”
Abbott and Patrick argue parents should have the freedom to choose which schools their kids attend, and that public funds should follow the student. Voucher opponents argue “school choice” actually means schools choose students, and that the proposed policies would benefit wealthy parents who already chose to avoid the public school system.
“In Arizona, they didn’t help poor families at all,” Woods said. “They helped families who already could afford private education.”
Some Texas conservatives — especially in rural areas — are staunch opponents of Abbott’s voucher plan.
The view of vouchers from rural Texas
Like most small towns on the South Plains, Floydada is a tight-knit, conservative community that’s about an hour northeast of Lubbock.
In front of the Floydada Collegiate Junior High and High School campus, a sign reads that staff are armed and willing to use whatever force is necessary to protect students.
Inside the building are state-of-the-art facilities where kids in Grades 6-12 take all kinds of classes, from advanced math to welding.
The school district has around 700 total students in a town of 2,654. A few years ago, enrollment was dropping as families moved away and looked for more robust education programs. Now, they have dual-credit courses and career pathways.
Superintendent Gilbert Trevino said kids in Floydada get a good education. But it’s fairly common for rural students to move between nearby school districts for specific programs, like sports or other extracurriculars.
“If a student isn’t happy at Floydada Collegiate ISD,” Trevino said, “they can choose to go to school in Lockney, in Rawls, in Matador.”
He made it clear that he is not against school choice. In fact, like Superintendent Whitbeck in Fort Bend ISD, Trevino said families already have that in Texas.
“I’m a firm believer that parents and kids have to be where they feel comfortable,” Trevino said. “But I’m against public funds going to private institutions.”
If a voucher program of some kind passes in the state, it could affect enrollment at small, rural schools. That’s what worries Michael Lee, who is the executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, which opposes vouchers. He has also led rural school districts as a superintendent.
“When you lose students, you lose funding because your funding is based on your students and your average daily attendance,” Lee said.
He said budget cuts can have ripple effects in small towns, where the public school is also a major employer.
“Not only are you adjusting staff, you’re cutting programs,” Lee said.
Lee has followed this issue through multiple legislative sessions. He predicts a big fight this year, and not just for opponents. It’s also contentious among Republicans.
District 88 House Rep. Ken King is one rural Republican against plans that would divert money from public schools. He’s a member of the House Public Education Committee who’s served on a Panhandle small-town school board.
“It’s horrible for rural Texas. It’s horrible for all Texans,” King said at a Texas Tribune event in Lubbock a few months ago. “The only people it’s going to help are the kids who don’t need the help.”
“The really big important piece about my legislation is these are non-public education dollars,” the Plano lawmaker said.
The proposed bill, similar to a program in Arizona, gives tax breaks to people and corporations who give money to a scholarship fund that can only be used at a private school. That’s significant tax revenue the state would lose.
Shaheen’s bill is one of several filed so far on this issue. Lawmakers will start considering bills next month.