Choice can lead to conundrums.
A controversial school choice bill, which would provide public funding for private education expenses, is being considered in the 88th Texas legislative session. The bill has been met with mixed support from families, educators and policy makers, who question how it will impact the quality of education for Texas K-12 students.
“We want to empower every single parent in the state of Texas to decide what’s best for their child’s unique educational needs,” bill author state Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston told the Austin American Statesman in January of this year.
His Senate Bill 176, one of several school choice bills filed this session, would establish an educational savings account for eligible Texas K-12 students, giving parents about $10,000 per year to put toward private school tuition, tutors or other alternative education expenses. Such publicly funded voucher programs, designed to offer alternatives to public school, have gained national attention in recent years amid parental concerns over curriculum content, COVID-19 schooling procedures and school safety.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott listed both school choice and school safety as top legislative priorities this session during his State of the State address in February.
“Parents … deserve education freedom. Without it, some parents are hindered in helping their child succeed. That must change this year,” Abbott said.
However, more Texans prioritize safety over choice according to a poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. While 29% of respondents said school safety should be a priority this session, only 8% said the same of school choice legislation.
Still, nationally, many families are considering different choices for their children’s education. According to a recent survey by National School Choice Week, a school choice advocacy organization, half of U.S. parents are considering either a new public or private school option for their children.
For some parents, like Jessica Perez, private school offers more safety and resources. However, this option is not currently financially possible for her three children attending the public Joslin Elementary School.
“In private school, they focus more on the kids,” Perez said. “I’ve been wanting to put them in private school, but I don’t have the budget.”
But other Joslin Elementary parents are happy with their school.
“It really hasn’t crossed my mind at all to enroll them in a private school,” said Corey Joy, a dad who spoke highly of the school’s staff and diversity.
Joslin Elementary is a trilingual school, offering classes in Mandarin, Spanish and English. Joy said this exposure to different languages gave his children opportunities they may not find in a private school.
As parents differ over types of schools, education experts disagree over how school choice would actually impact the quality of students’ learning experience.
One study published in 2021 by education scholars found “moderate evidence” that private school vouchers improved academic performance. The paper reviewed 21 studies comparing academic outcomes of students randomly selected to receive a school voucher program with students who did not.
School choice could also benefit public school students through competition, said Alexander Salter, an associate professor of economics at Texas Tech University and research fellow at the university’s Free Market Institute. In an Austin American-Statesman opinion piece, Salter discussed 25 studies indicating “school choice improves education outcomes” in public schools.
“When you expose traditional school systems to a school choice program … traditional public schools actually rise to the challenge,” Salter said.
Other voucher program results, however, contradict these findings.
Programs in Milwaukee, Louisiana, New York City and Washington D.C. did not improve, and in some cases, produced negative academic outcomes, according to David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Education Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas, who cited these results in another Austin American-Statesman opinion piece.
DeMatthews said legislative proposals like SB 176, which do not require education service providers to report test results to the state, incentivize illegitimate private schools to make a quick cash grab while failing to educate students.
“You get all these storefront schools that are poorly run that hire poor quality teachers, and so the students suffer,” DeMattews said. “Often (it’s) the case that they can’t even sustain their enrollment and they close.”
But proponents say the element of choice holds private schools accountable.
“Families can choose … whether they send their kids to our school or not,” said Jay Ferguson, head of the private Christian Grace Community School in Tyler, “and so we’re highly motivated to provide an exceptional quality product.”
When it comes to measuring the quality of schools, test scores alone are not enough, said education consultant Ramona Trevino, who served as founding principal of the University of Texas Elementary School and principal of Zilker Elementary School, which was designated a National Blue Ribbon School for academic excellence under her leadership.
“Children come from all places,” Trevino said of the differing learning styles among students.
In addition to test scores, Trevino said she tracked school culture, absences, nurse visits and parent satisfaction during her leadership.
While parents should be involved, Trevino said, bills like SB 176 diminish parents’ trust in public school teachers’ ability to do their job.
“It’s eroding the whole profession,” Trevino said.
Trevino also thought SB 176 would take money away from public schools.
Each year, Texas public schools receive the bulk of their funding from local property taxes supplemented by state funding and federal grants. Some of that funding is determined by the average number of students in attendance. More students switching to private schools, as the bill incentivizes, would mean less money sent to public schools.
However, not all money would leave the schools. Under the bill, federal funds and tax money contributing to school debts would stay with the school districts, according to Middleton’s chief of staff Andrew Herrell.
Many factors are at play as Texas parents face choices over how to educate their children. While the school choice debate may seem like a conundrum at times, “the thing is,” Trevino said, “we should learn from each other.”