Guest Post: Saving Students in Low-Performing Schools

The 84th Texas Legislature has been in session for a few months now, and once again the mantra regarding “school choice” is being chanted throughout the Capitol halls: “We have a moral responsibility to rescue students in low-performing schools.” The solution, as supported by several legislators and the lieutenant governor, is to provide vouchers, or taxpayer savings grants, also referred to as “tax credits,” to students attending the low-performing schools.

A voucher would require the state to send funds directly to the private school. Tax credits/taxpayer savings grants are “back-door vouchers.” These grants come in the form of tax credits, including personal-use tax credits that would reimburse parents for private school costs and donation tax credits, which provide a tax credit to individuals or corporations who donate to an education scholarship fund.

Senator Donna Campbell has filed SB 276, which she claims will provide “state savings and government efficiency achieved through a taxpayer savings grant program administered by the comptroller!” If enacted, parents would receive a reimbursement for 60 percent of the state average expenditure per student, not the average of the state entitlement/revenue per student.

SB 276 would allocate more state funds (tax dollars) to students accepting the voucher/tax saving grants than to students attending the public schools. (The average “state” entitlement/revenue per student is currently 42 percent of the total revenue for districts, excluding federal programs.)

This “voucher” bill, as well as those filed in the past, states that a private school may not be required to comply with any state law or rule governing the school’s education program that was not in effect on January 1, 2015. In other words, the one indicator that has been the rod to beat down our students, our teachers, and our schools will not be applicable for private schools or students who are home schooled. The state assessment system, one test administered on one day, which can result in a low-performing rating for your public school, is deemed unimportant and of no value in assessing the performance of students in non-public school settings.

Will vouchers/tax credits save dollars for Texas? During the 83rd legislative session, the voucher proposal was based on $5,143 per student, which reflected 60 percent of the average state entitlement/revenue per child, not expenditure per child. It was touted as a huge savings of $2,469 per child, or $2 billion in the first two years, if 6.3 percent of students left the public school system during the first year and 7.6 percent the second year.

The Texas Legislative Budget Board, HB 33 from the 82nd legislative session, did not reflect this type of savings to the state. Due to the timing of the payments to parents, the state’s savings would lag the first year, with a net loss of $196 million in the first two years (Moak, Casey & Associates). The current political rhetoric is based on expenditure, rather than state revenue, which will increase the financial liability for the state.

If state tax dollars are to be used for private purposes, our politicians must answer the following questions:

  • Will private schools retain the right to charge tuition above the value of the voucher?
  • Will private schools that receive state aid (vouchers or taxpayer grants) be eligible to request additional funds to provide the necessary services required for the very special high needs students?
  • Will private schools that receive state aid (vouchers or taxpayer grants) be required to meet the same regulations as public schools?
  • Will private schools that receive state aid (vouchers or taxpayer grants) be required to administer the state-mandated curriculum and student assessments?
  • Will private schools and home schools that receive state aid or taxpayer grants be allowed to teach Common Core curriculum?
  • Will private schools be subjected to the same accountability standards as public schools?
  • Will private schools retain the right of student refusal based on disability, academic achievement, religious beliefs, or discipline?
  • Will private schools that receive students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals be required to offer meals under this federal program?
  • Will vouchers (taxpayer savings grants) limit the religious instruction (Christian and non-Christian) offered in private schools?
  • Will the state assume the responsibility of managing and monitoring families that receive vouchers or taxpayer grants to home school their children?
  • Will the state offer vouchers/taxpayer savings grants for all students currently enrolled in private schools or home schooled?
  • Will voucher funds (taxpayer savings grants) be allocated by average daily attendance, requiring private and home schools to report daily attendance with required hours of instruction to receive the funds for that day of instruction?
  • Will private and home schools have to reimburse the state if students withdraw during the school year and re-enroll in a public school?
  • Will private schools be required to participate in the PEIMS reporting system?

And a final question for our legislators: Will vouchers/taxpayer savings grants given to the private sector meet the fiduciary responsibility required for the accountability of public funds?

Resouces: Moak, Casey & Associates, school finance and accountability experts, Austin, Texas; and Ronald Trowbridge, chief of staff to Chief Justice Warren Burger

Mary Ann Whiteker is the superintendent of Hudson ISD. She can be reached at mwhiteker@hudsonisd.org.

Views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of ATPE.

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