Texas Republicans try to sell school choice measures, but rural conservatives aren’t buying

From the Texas Tribune:

As a Texas school principal, Adrain Johnson is no stranger to the difficulties facing small, rural public schools, from trying to recruit teachers, especially after more than two years of navigating the school during a global pandemic, to a general lack of resources. And now, after the Uvalde school shooting, there’s a new conversation about campus security.

With so many issues to deal with, Johnson, who oversees the Hearne Independent School District northwest of College Station, can’t understand why state lawmakers’ to-do lists ahead of next year’s legislative session appear to be falling apart. focus more on school choice rather than something like school safety.

“There always seems to be a debate about school choice every legislative year, and I’m not afraid of it. I think debating is fine. It’s part of democracy,” Johnson said.

But he also wonders why public schools always take a back seat in the pursuit of policies that could diminish them.

“Why not make it imperative to support the local school district?” he said.

Instead, where he stands, the discourse in Austin is already focused on school choice, the umbrella term applied to a host of taxpayer-funded alternatives to sending a child to public school. local.

[With rural Texas watching, Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke dig in on school vouchers fight]

Although the Texas legislature will not meet for another five months, Gov. Greg Abbott has expressed support for alternatives to public schools. Abbott said he supports “parents’ choice to send their children to any public school, charter school, or private school with state funding following the student.” And Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who will face Abbott in November, has also joined the debate, running ads asking people to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund” public schools.

The Republican Party of Texas has listed school choice as a legislative priority, and pro-school choice groups like the Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation will also push for school choice legislation. school.

But in the northeast corner of the state, Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican whose district includes 30 rural school districts, remains unconvinced. He was one of many lawmakers who helped kill school choice legislation in 2017. He said one concern parents have is that they pay property taxes, which fund public schools. , but have opted for home schooling or sending their children. in private school.

“I’d rather lower their property taxes, so they have the flexibility to spend that money however they see fit, whether it’s alternative education choices, saving for college, or buying a new car.” , VanDeaver said.

Texas has adopted some school choice measures. VanDeaver points to endorsing the state’s charter school system in the 1990s and giving students from low-performing schools the option to transfer out of a district.

“Proponents of expanding school choice options often say that the money should follow the student,” VanDeaver said. “Current Texas law already does this if a student transfers to another public school, including a charter school.”

From his perspective, VanDeaver has good reason to be concerned. In smaller towns in Texas, there are far fewer “choices” for rural students. Outside of major metropolitan areas, private schools are rare. Many rural private schools have religious affiliations. And VanDeaver has been told that private religious schools in his area are not interested in public money. He also worries about the damage done to the local public school district by a voucher program.

“That sense of community is what makes Texas great, and I would hate to see anything like a voucher program destroy that community spirit,” he said.

Conservative efforts to enact school choice measures have failed largely because there are few private schools or charter schools as alternatives outside of the state’s major urban areas. In addition, public school systems are an important economic and employment driver for most small towns.

In Texas, schools are funded based on student enrollment and daily on-campus attendance. Schools receive a base stipend of $6,160 per student each year. Texas is also home to more rural students than any other state, and its schools are funded by property taxes.

Proponents say more school choice options help low-income families afford a better education. Opponents believe that school choice policies weaken the public education system because they can cause public school money to go to private schools, which are largely unregulated and therefore unaccountable.

In addition to vouchers, lawmakers could consider education savings accounts, or ESAs, where the state puts taxpayers’ money into accounts for families to use for education expenses such as tuition. in private schools. But the funds can also be used for tutoring, online courses, and even higher education expenses.

Then there are tax credit scholarships, which allow individuals or businesses to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to scholarship funds that are then awarded to families. to enroll in private schools.

Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said a tax credit or ESA option would work well for Texas. His organization is against a voucher policy.

“We’re about 20 years behind, so I think there’s a lot we could do to improve options — education options — for parents and children in Texas,” Colangelo said.

But the struggle, again, will be convincing rural legislators that school choice is the way to go.

State Representative Drew Darby of San Angelo told the Texas Tribune last week that he would oppose anything that robs Texas public schools of resources.

Bill Tarleton, executive director of the Texas Rural Education Association, worries that private schools don’t allow the same transparency and accountability because they don’t have elected school boards. He also questions whether school choice legislation would really benefit all students, as private schools can choose who they accept.

“Public schools are the only ones that should educate all students,” Tarleton said.

VanDeaver said he is not one to close the door on politics and looks forward to the debate next session. He wants to see a better accountability system created for the private schools that receive the money.

“As conservatives, we expect it from our public schools,” he said. “We need to know that we get what we pay for for every dollar spent on education, wherever it is spent.”

Disclosure: The Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texatribune.org/2022/08/08/texas-school-choice-legislation/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom that informs and engages Texans about politics and state politics. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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