A proposal to move school choice forward in Texas

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It should not be news to anyone who pays attention to state-level politics in Texas (and indeed across America) that one of the biggest battles in recent decades has been over enacting so-called school-choice laws. Even the Wikipedia page on school choice notes that the issue has been the subject of fierce debate in state legislatures across America. Indeed, Jeremy Wallace of the Houston Chronicle recently posted a story¬†that covers Texas governor Greg Abbott’s political push in Texas statehouse races where candidates he has backed are trying to unseat Texas statehouse members who have opposed the governor’s school voucher proposals. Wallace writes that one of Greg Abbott’s advisor’s beliefs is that school vouchers will be a cornerstone of the governor’s legacy. That’s not hard to believe given that the governor called the legislature in to four special sessions in 2023 in an effort to get school choice (or school vouchers) passed.

School-choice proposals for the compulsory education of kids have taken quite a few forms. Some of them involve vouchers, presumably where parents would be given a certain amount of taxpayer funds that can be used to send their kids to a variety of types of schools, including private schools (such as most Montesorri schools), specialized magnet schools, schools run by churches and religious orders, and charter schools. Other proposals include granting tax breaks to parents who pay tuition to send their kids to tuition charging schools. This post does not take a particular position on any of the merits, drawbacks, or arguments for or against school choice proposals. Rather, I merely suggest a change of strategy for getting an actual school choice bill proposal enacted into law.

What about school choice and all that legal stuff?

SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

Texas Constitution – Article 7, Section 1

What noble words! And of course, those noble words have provided plenty of cannon fodder to argue over and have also afforded quite a few lawyers in Texas a very comfy lifestyle as they have gone round and round in circles in the courts, racking up countless billable hours over the years, arguing over what those noble words really mean. What exactly do the words suitable provision mean? What do the words support and maintenance and efficient mean? Oh, and what about that free school stuff?

Well, one way of reading the Texas Constitution is that the document has nothing to say about school choice or school vouchers. The rest of Section 7 has lots to say about the Permanent School Fund, the establishment of the University of Texas and Texas A & M, the state Board of Education, various land issues and taxes, and so on. Yet, once again there is nary to say about parental school choice, whether it specifically allows or bans the practice.

So what about the political situation now?

I’ve been an on-again, off-again activist for over 20 years now. Yet one matter I’ve never gotten myself involved in was government schools (except for when my bond election ideas passed into law). Far and away the biggest reason I’ve stayed away from schools and politics is because there are so many interest and pressure groups out there in school politics (not to mention that all three levels of government in America have their fingers in school politics) that I’ve long thought there was little I could do to move the proverbial needle.

From what I can see about the current descriptions of the pro- and anti-school choice coalitions, most Republicans, Libertarians, and certain ethnic groups (Hispanics and Blacks) are in favor, while the coalition against them comprises an array of Democrats speaking on behalf of various teacher unions, contractors, and people who seem to regard school choice or vouchers as an attack against what they see as a great legacy of Progressive Era America. One state legislator who is opposed is this loudmouth boor, who besides being quite a piece of work, also happens to have his own kids in some very expensive private schools – and thereby continuing the long leftwing tradition of elite Champagne Socialists who rail about inequality, but whose actions belie their words and who do everything they can to make sure that those at the bottom aren’t given a better chance to climb their way out of it.

However, one of the most striking groups holding out against school choice (or vouchers) are Republicans who represent rural districts and counties. Some years ago, a few activists I met during the Tea Party era sat down and had a meal with me, and told me the calculus behind rural Republican opposition to school choice. It seems that their opposition is rooted in a combination of fears over losing funding for schooling, the fact that school districts serve as a kind of glue holding the fabric of rural life together, and that school districts in rural areas serve as an important source of employment for rural communities.

With that in mind, I have a proposal: If representatives from rural areas are opposed to school vouchers (or school choice), then tell them that they don’t have to have it! Rather than try to pass a piece of legislation that applies statewide, why not write school voucher (or school choice) legislation that devolves the decisionmaking to the local level? Texas is a big state (duh!) with 254 counties and over 1,000 school districts. Instead of telling everyone they must accept school vouchers, why not let the decision be made by a local state House representative, or perhaps at the county level, or at the school district level either by a vote of the school board or by a vote of parents and the local electorate? No doubt, some areas of the state would elect to go with a school-choice/voucher scheme, while others would collectively decide to stay with the more traditional way by which schools have been funded. In a sense, it probably doesn’t matter so much how the decision gets made. What really matters is that the decision on whether to go to a school choice (or school voucher) scheme is made at a more local level, and not imposed top-down, statewide by the Legislature.

Now, funding a bifurcated scheme like this, where some areas of the state would go with vouchers (or school choice) while others would elect to stay with the traditional state and local tax funding scheme would take some creativity. No doubt that opponents would raise legal challenges to such a scheme, but Texas has had many battles over unequal funding of schools anyway. What would really matter, in my mind, is that such a proposal would set into motion an experiment that asks: Are school-voucher (or school-choice) funding schemes really better than funding monolithic school districts in the older, more traditional way? Would they produce better results (as is claimed by their proponents)? Such a scheme would likely reveal the results.

So my admonition to Gov. Abbott and to school voucher proponents is this: When it comes to school vouchers, why not compromise and split the difference? Don’t try to have the whole cake and eat it too. Rather, why not settle for half the cake and share it with those who want to eat it with you, and leave the rest of the cake to people who don’t?

And there you have it.

3 Comments

  1. Your idea sounds a lot like “more government” than the current state of TX education system. Texas doe not have bona-fide teachers union. The school voucher issue is just hype about fixing the education system. It has been for an extremely long time and meanwhile, there is a mass exodus of teachers, school bus drivers, and substitutes leaving education altogether because they have lost any validation of being an educator i.e. library books or basically any reading book, more time over-testing students instead of enough time to make sure they understand what we have taught them — all in the name of getting state funds…HB 4545 could have better for Texas students had a coalition of teachers put that bill together because it is THE TEACHERS who have the front row seat of education to better determine how to deal with the aftermath of CoVid left education everywhere in a state of chaos. So, the school voucher issue is a major moot point… how about fixing the very real problems first.

  2. If the rural schools are so beloved by parents in rural Texas, they won’t lose any significant money with a universal choice plan as people will not leave those schools. If people do leave those schools in significant numbers, it makes a mockery of all the talk about choice is not needed in rural Texas.

  3. I’d be concerned the most blue/urban parts of the state will never allow it. But I’d be open to automatic school choice in counties above a certain size, while smaller ones can choose to opt in or not (county referendum every four years). That should get the rural Republicans on board.

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