AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The State Board of Education is changing its mind on “school choice” — voting Thursday to reverse its previous stance of asking Texas lawmakers to reject school vouchers or anything that gives public funding to private schools.
In November, the Republican-majority board voted to encourage lawmakers to stay away from school voucher policies. The item was part of its legislative recommendations, calling on legislators “to reject all attempts to divert public dollars away from public schools in the form of vouchers, an education savings account, taxpayer savings grants, tuition-tax credits, a business franchise tax credit or an insurance premium tax credit, or any other mechanisms that have the effect of reducing funding to public schools.”
Since then, the board expanded its conservative majority by an extra seat. Additionally, top Republican leaders in Texas have ramped up rhetoric around school choice — with Gov. Greg Abbott making his strongest remarks in support of such policies at an event earlier this week.
“That will give all parents the ability to choose the best education option for their child,” Abbott said during a Parent Empowerment Night event in Corpus Christi. “The bottom line is this: this is really about freedom.”
But now, the board appears to be taking a more neutral stance on vouchers, with an 8-5 Thursday vote to remove language against vouchers in the board’s legislative recommendations. It did not explicitly name support for such voucher programs.
“There’s going to be a very rich and robust debate over this in the Legislature and because of that, I’ve felt it was appropriate to reconsider this item and let that rich and robust debate happen at the legislature,” said Kevin Ellis, the board’s chair.
School choice is a broad term often used in the conversation around school vouchers — which essentially give parents state money to send their children to private or charter schools outside of the public education system. Supporters argue it empowers parents to have more access to options in their kids’ education. Opponents have warned it takes away funding from public education at a time when Texas teachers are leaving in droves.
“When a school does fall short of excellence, when it strays too far from the fundamentals or simply cannot meet the unique needs of a particular child — parents should not be helpless,” Abbott said. “They should be able to choose the education option that is best for their child.”
The governor said he wants to create an education savings account program, which would divert taxpayer dollars from public schools to a fund available for parents who want to send their children to a non-public school. It is a variation of the more common model of voucher programs.
“School choice has become a marketing term for people who are promoting the privatization of public schools,” said Mark Wiggins, senior lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
Wiggins said there are major accountability issues with voucher programs, when it comes to how taxpayer dollars are spent.
“Every tax dollar that is spent in the state of Texas has public accountability attached to it —they’re in public school districts that have elected school boards to oversee how that money is spent,” he said. “And private schools, voucher schools, they don’t have that. That would be tax dollars going into a black hole with no accountability, no transparency whatsoever.”
Dan Huberty — a former state representative known as the Texas Legislature’s state finance guru — opposes the idea of school vouchers. However, the Republican notes the education board’s changed position is more symbolic.
“Certainly the board became more conservative,” Huberty said. “They don’t have an ability to control what the public policy ultimately would be, only the legislators. I think it was symbolic of, kind of, maybe the change a little bit of the politics around the board today.”
The 15-member education board consists of independently-elected members from across Texas — responsible for setting curriculum standards, managing funding for public schools and approving charter applicants.