As the 85th session of the Texas legislature winds down, vouchers have once again been advanced by the Senate and repudiated by the House. We have to wonder: How many more times will we have this conversation? For the past 12 sessions (that’s 24 years!), those who want to privatize public schools have been pushing some form of voucher program. Lately, they have been using creative names like “tuition tax credit,” “insurance premium tax credit,” and “education savings account.” Earlier in the current legislative session, one of the members of the Senate Education Committee chided a concerned citizen for using the term “voucher” to describe Senate Bill 3, which proposes a combination of an insurance premium tax credit and an education savings account. “Why do you keep using the term “voucher”?” the senator wanted to know. “Because,” replied the testifier, “it takes public funds and sends them to private entities for educational purposes. That’s the definition of a voucher.”
As the House seems to understand and the Senate does not, a voucher by another name is still a voucher. Earlier this session, voucher supporter Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick challenged the House to “give an up or down vote” on vouchers. The House did just that, but not in the way that Patrick intended. They passed an amendment that disallows the expenditure of public funds for private education, sending a clear message to the Senate and Patrick regarding exactly how the House feels about vouchers.
The argument from those who support vouchers is always “Give us school choice!” But they already have school choice; the only difference is that now they want taxpayers to foot the bill. Increasingly, school choice is available within public schools. Many public schools now have creative career and technology programs that can compete on a worldwide basis along with district- and state-implemented mechanisms to allow students and parents a variety of options (in-district and inter-district transfers, public education grants, etc.). In schools where choice is more limited, the culprit is often poor state funding exacerbated by a depressed local economy. As the state’s share of public school funding continues to drop below 40 percent, these communities struggle to meet the daily social and educational demands of students, often finding themselves without the resources to create more robust public school choice programs.
Vouchers rob the public trust to advance private enterprise. If school choice advocates really want educational options, they should focus instead on providing adequate funding for communities whose schools suffer from a depressed economy. One way to do this is to simply keep the tax money that is collected for public schools in the public school system. As property values and taxes increase in local communities, the state increasingly shifts the burden for public education expenditures to local taxpayers. In fact, the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates that the state “repurposed” more than $1.8 billion in the 85th legislature in this manner.
Before the next legislative session, public education advocates should work hard to do two things. First, vote for senators (several are up for election in 2018) and representatives who support public schools. Second, work diligently to raise awareness for the idea that tax money raised for public schools should stay in public schools. Who knows, with the extra money, maybe we can even enhance school choice programs within our public schools.
The information in this article was current as of press time. Please check with TeachtheVote.org for the most up-to-date information on voucher bills and the rest of ATPE’s legislative agenda.