Bill of the Week: Bracing for a School Choice Battle

Senate Bill 176 would create "parental empowerment accounts"

Gov. Greg Abbott addresses the House during opening day of the 88th Texas Legislature on January 10 (Photo by John Anderson)

Several times over the years, the Texas Legislature has considered what proponents call "school choice" and opponents call "vouchers": diverting the state's public education funding to pay for private, parochial, and at-home schooling. The usual rhythm is: Advocates get traction in the more conservative chamber (now the Senate) before dying in the other as Democrats join with rural Republicans in opposition. But advocates are convinced 2023 will be their year.

Bill of the Week: Bracing for a School Choice Battle

Senate Bill 176, filed by Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston – a member of the House last session – would create "parental empowerment accounts," a type of education savings account, for Texas parents who opt out of public schools, funded at up to $10,000 per year, the average cost to educate a Texas child. They could spend that money on private school tuition or on home schooling expenses. "Every single public school student will continue to be 100% funded," Middleton told the Statesman. "It doesn't change those formulas at all [but will] empower parents who want something different."

State public school funding is based on enrollment and attendance, so students opting out would directly impact funding for the districts, whose costs may not decrease: Half­-empty buses still use as much gas, janitors will be cleaning the same rooms at night, etc. "If you fund every private school student in Texas with a voucher, it's going to cost the state $3 billion a year. ... Home-schooled students [cost] an additional $3 billion," said Michelle Smith of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas at a panel hosted by The Texas Tribune. She worries the quickly assembled program would lack safeguards and could "empower" parents "to buy a kayak or a cage for their bunny or a trip to wherever."

Public schools' staffing and funding shortfalls have long been the backdrop for these debates, but attitudes have shifted after COVID shutdowns and mask mandates, an epidemic of mental health crises among students, and culture war campaigns against "critical race theory" and LGBTQ+ student rights. Gov. Greg Abbott flagged school choice as an emergency item in his State of the State address and told the Tribune that "rural Republican voters strongly support this," even if their representatives don't. In 2022, 88% of GOP primary voters agreed in a nonbinding referendum that parents should have the right to choose public or private schools for their children and "the funding should follow the student."

Proponents argue that competition will improve learning outcomes for everyone, and brush off arguments that $10,000 isn't enough to get kids into the state's top private schools (the average private school tuition in Texas is around $9,000). At the Tribune panel, Texas Private Schools Assoc­ia­tion leader Laura Colangelo cited a study in Florida, one of 32 states with a similar program in place, finding higher test scores in public schools with more state-supported private options. She didn't mention the nine Harvard studies that found school choice programs "deepen educational inequality and fail to yield consistent learning gains." (Texas Private Schools Association has drafted its own school choice legislation that would prioritize low-income students, expected to be filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.)

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