Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is urging the state Legislature to pass a major new education bill that would provide tax dollars for families who leave public schools for private schooling across his state, which is home to some of the country’s largest school districts.
Here’s a closer look at the legislation, what its supporters and critics say and why these school choice initiatives have gained traction in 32 states so far.
What does the Texas school choice bill do?
Known as S.B. 1, the proposal would devote $500 million to education savings accounts (ESA) to provide financial support for families who remove their children from the public school system.
Under S.B. 1, each student would be allotted $8,000 annually — for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks or other approved expenses.
Is the bill going to become law?
Despite multiple efforts, the Republican-held Texas Legislature has so far failed to enact education changes during its regular session this summer, leading Abbott to call for a special session in the fall where he has made the issue a top priority.
“Our obligation is to get them [Texas students] educated again, to get them to a safer place, and we can do that with a universal ESA program,” Abbott said at an event this month.
S.B. 1 passed the Texas Senate earlier this month but has been pending in the state House, in another example of divisions between Texas Republicans on some major issues.
Texas Democrats have been quick to condemn the legislation.
“Texas Republicans have once again sold out our kids’ future … Public dollars belong in public schools. Period,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in an Oct 13. statement.
Progress on the bill stalled in the House in August when a bipartisan committee recommended that the ESA program prioritize “high need students,” or students with disabilities from low-income families. The committee also proposed the program be financed with the state’s general revenue, not its primary education fund, over concerns of stripping Texas’ public schools of key money.
Abbott has said that once an ESA plan is passed, he will add teacher pay and public education funding to the legislative agenda.
Legislators opposing the school choice efforts have stressed the state’s lackluster national rankings to argue for the need to prioritize public school funding rather than creating a system to allow more families to go into private schooling.
Texas is ranked 38th in spending per student and 28th in average teacher salary, per a National Education Association report published in April.
That bill suggests the lower chamber may be willing to negotiate on school choice legislation that incorporates some elements of S.B 1, though it remains to be seen how and whether the House will move forward.
“There’s an easy way to get it done, and there’s a hard way,” Abbott said during a September town hall, threatening to call another special session or hand the decision to voters.
What is school choice and why is it becoming more popular?
Thirty-two states and Washington, D.C., have implemented some type of school choice program, with seven states adding programs and 10 states expanding existing programs in 2023, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice.
School choice, according to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, “describes an array of elementary and secondary educational options available to students and their families.”
Charter schools, ESAs, voucher programs and home schooling, among other initiatives, all fall under school choice.
The roots of these programs trace back decades: In the 1990-1991 school year, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program made Wisconsin the first state to introduce a modern voucher program, according to EdChoice. In 1991, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a law allowing for charter schools, another national first, according to the advocacy group.
The president and CEO of EdChoice, Robert Enlow, told ABC News that he believes school choice has gained traction for three reasons: there have been decades of efforts to educate the public on the concept; the emergence of charter schools, outside public school districts, helped normalize how it worked in practice; and the COVID-19 pandemic “supercharged” a movement toward alternative educational options.
Dr. Martin West, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that in addition to the “driving factor” of the pandemic, an “uptick in debate over school curricula and how they [public schools] cover controversial topics” — such as conservative-led outcry over how race, racism and LGBTQ+ issues are taught — influenced the momentum for programs outside government-run schools.
ESA programs are becoming the most popular, of the school choice options, Enlow said. Thirteen states have implemented an ESA program, per Education Next, a Harvard University education policy journal
“It really did shift the dialogue from saying ‘It’s about us versus them’ to ‘it’s about us helping families get what they want,'” Enlow said.
Reception of school choice
West told ABC News that results from polling on school choice depends on how the issue or program is framed in questions, which “makes it hard to put your finger on exactly where the public is at on the issue.”
For instance, “when you emphasize how a voucher or education savings account program would expand options for families, particularly for low-income families, you see higher levels of support than when you emphasize that taxpayer funds would be used to pay for the programs,” West said.
“It tells you that it matters how lawmakers design school choice programs and, even more, how they talk about them,” he said.
West said many people are uninformed on the policies for school choice programs like charter schools, and he expects a similar lack of understanding as ESA policymaking continues to become more prevalent.
Corey DeAngelis, a fellow at the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group, said that “the money should go to the student to whatever school system works best for them.”
DeAngelis argued that “on a per student basis … public schools actually financially benefit as a result of these types of school choice initiatives,” pointing to the costs saved by public school systems when a student is unenrolled.
On a large scale, West agreed, saying “the logic of that is exactly right.” But he added, “I think critics of school choice programs … note correctly that when a single student leaves a public school system, that their costs don’t immediately drop because that one child isn’t present.”
Critics also say that school choice programs divert needed government funds for public education and that the programs can weaken important institutions that have a relatively high degree of public oversight, though initiatives like charter schools are also regulated by the state.
Detractors can cross party lines: Along with Democrats, rural Republican legislators in Texas blocked the summer’s school choice legislative attempts. West said rural Republicans have long been a school choice “stumbling block.”
He said that these populations have a lack of private school offerings in their area, which makes such programs seem unbeneficial.
“They also tend to be to see themselves as defenders of their public-school systems, which are often important community hubs in rural regions and are also often one of the biggest employers,” he said.
Source : ABC News