Dan Patrick Touts School Choice — But What’s the ROI?


The fight over school funding will commence in the Texas legislature soon - but no bill is filed just yet.

The fight over school funding will commence in the Texas legislature soon, but no bill is filed just yet.

This week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott donned yellow scarves and held a “School Choice Week” rally in Austin.

“I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk,” Abbott declared. “And when it does, I will make the choice to sign it and authorize school choice in the state of Texas.”

Across the country, the nation spends about $1 billion per year to send students to private schools.

A bill (and nobody knows for sure what it will look like because it hasn’t been filed yet) will likely easily pass in the Texas senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats (who are largely opposed) 20-11. Less clear is if it could pass the House, despite the fact that there are 95 Republican members and 55 Democrat members.

Why? One reason, I suspect, is because while private schools are abundant in more urban areas, in more rural parts of the state public school is the only available choice. Will the potential of vouchers lure private and charter schools further afield? That remains to be seen. But I imagine that support for choice is a little more tentative in areas where the public school district is the sole provider of education, where constituents may be reluctant to cut back on that funding even more.

Steven Young provides a bit more history in his story on the topic with the Dallas Observer.

“In 2013, a bill pushed by then state Senator Patrick and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst died after the Texas House voted 103-43 for a budget amendment that banned the use of public money for private school tuition,” Young said. “Two years later, in 2015, Patrick again pushed for vouchers, guiding a bill through the Texas Senate. His efforts were stymied, however, when the Texas House failed to vote on the bill.”

Right now, nobody even knows for sure how it will work — although Patrick has been touting a Education Savings Account option that would give parents a certain amount of money they can spend toward their child’s education. It could be used for public school, private school, charters, or home school.

But here’s the deal. Say you get $8,200 for each kid, per year (and again, nobody knows for sure how much this will be, but that’s still substantially cheaper than average per pupil spending now, which isn’t nearly enough). Now, if you’re a wealthier family, you’ll throw that to your $20,000 (or so) Hockaday tuition and still absorb that $12,000 overage with no sweat – because you were probably affording the higher tuition before. The $8,200 is nice, but it wasn’t a game changer for you.

Now maybe you’re a less-wealthy family. You can’t absorb $12,000 per kid, so automatically the higher elite private schools are already out for you. But that may be OK, anyway, because you were never going to budget for that. You find a private school with cheaper tuition — but you’re still going to be paying about $1,200 or so out of pocket per kid.

But say you’re a poor family. Tell me which private schools charge $8,200 per year, please.

And this doesn’t even factor in that the bill will likely say which schools and programs you can spend your ESA money on — so that school or program you have your eye on may not be eligible. And if you homeschool and want to use ESA to pay for materials, you may be required to use certain curriculums, which is pretty much negates the reason why a lot of homeschool parents homeschool to begin with.

Now, yes, you can use your ESA to go to public school. But again, where are you going to go? The struggling neighborhood school with a D rating with the state but is actually showing great progress and, when you look at other factors, is actually a really great school on its way up?

No. You’ll look for an A or B school. And on the surface, you’d be right to. But you know what happens when you begin removing money from struggling schools?

They remain struggling schools. And the ones showing upward trajectory plateau or worse. And this, my friends, is segregation — because the students that are without options automatically get less. Private schools and charters aren’t required to offer special education services. They’re not required to offer services for new immigrants, or refugees. They’re not required to assist homeless students.

So those students will have no choice. And, to make things super unfair, while private schools are not required to offer services to these types of students, they are also not (as I pointed out last week) under the regulatory aspects of education that public schools are (like A-F).

And depending on how it is funded, it could be unconstitutional. A Nevada school choice law has been winding its way through the court system. In September, the state’s supreme court ruled that the way it was funded was unconstitutional. If appeals fail, the Nevada legislature will be faced with either taking money away from public schools to fund it, or raising taxes.

“The only way they can fund this program would be to reduce public school funding or raise taxes, and I don’t think legislators will do that,” Tod Story of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union said. “I don’t think that voters would be supportive of that—raising taxes to send kids to private schools. That’s what we have public schools for.”

A 2001 Gallup poll revealed that 71 percent of respondents would rather strengthen public schools, and only 27 percent liked a voucher-type option. And as for achievement, a study of the Milwaukee school choice push revealed that after four years, the difference in student achievement between voucher students and low-income Milwaukee public school students was negligible.

A study of Cleveland’s voucher program showed that while voucher students were performing better than their public school counterparts, most of them were already outperforming them before entering the voucher program — in other words, bright students who moved to private schools via voucher continued to grow. What is unknown is what happened to the bright students who did not leave public school.

Louisiana produced results alarming enough for the US Department of Education to freeze its voucher program.

And more recent data (albeit about vouchers, but ESA is not all that different) reveals even more.

“In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools,” a recent Politico piece revealed. “In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.”

Studies do reveal that black students are statistically more likely to attend college when they are in a voucher program versus public schools. But this also doesn’t take into account programs such as Dallas ISD’s Collegiate Prep Academies, which allow students to graduate high school with both their high school diploma and an associates degree — two years of free college.

The anti-ESA crowd has gotten a powerful and vocal ally, too. Pastors for Texas Children has been leading prayers on the steps of the statehouse, but more importantly, has been actively opposing Patrick, despite his evangelical Christian trappings.

In conclusion, I’m going to let two other folks take the wheel. First, Randy Sedlacek, Denison Independent School Board president, who recently wrote an op-ed about school choice.

“The Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836 listed the failure of the Mexican government ‘to establish any public system of education’ among the reasons for severing political ties with Mexico,” he wrote.

“Furthermore, beginning in 1876, the Texas Constitution required that every child should get an education by stating, ‘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.’”

And then Jennifer Hiser, who writes that while she is a Republican, she is against “school choice” because, “This is what it boils down to: taking tax payer $$ from school districts to pay individuals/corporations/schools in the name of ‘school choice’ is only fair if ALL entities are playing by the same rules.”

“In its current form, ‘school choice’ is NOT the free market answer. The biggest problem with touting school choice as a solution — the playing field must be level,” she continues. “No government intervention (externalities for the economists) is a basic tenet of the free market system. Ironically, government intervention in public schools is at the root of many of the issues which make alternatives attractive.”

4 Comment

  • Doesn’t Texas ever tire of being on the wrong side of everything? We can’t redline anymore, we can’t discriminate on race, but hey, so many poor people are black and brown, economic discrimination works just as well.

  • mm

    One thing I also cut for space but is also important to note: That slight increase in black students who attend private schools with vouchers going on to attend college was not a measure of college readiness. College readiness, according to the report, was pretty much the same.
    And furthermore, that college attendance rate didn’t increase for every group. It definitely didn’t with Hispanic and latino students. In Dallas ISD, this group makes up at least 70 percent of the student population.

  • If the problem is that some public schools are not good enough (by whatever standards one uses), then why not just fix the sub-par schools? We tried separate but equal schools before, and that did not work out very well. Charter and private schools are just the 21st Century version of that failed philosophy. The State is REQUIRED by the Texas Constitution to provide an acceptable public school system for all, yet the school districts statewide have been in court with the State for decades to try to force the State to meet its constitutional responsibilities. with the State always losing, promising to fix the problems, and then failing to do so. Charter schools, school vouchers, or any scheme that undermines the public education system mandated by the Texas Constitution does not make public education better–it only makes private entities (who are not held to the same standards) richer. Our governor and our lieutenant governor once again are failing to do their jobs as the State’s leaders unless and until they bring the public education system up to an acceptable level. Abbott and Patrick must be held accountable.

  • You can prove all day long that school vouchers are a bad idea but Patrick and Abbott do not care. It is their intention to denigrate public schools. They want so badly for children to attend Christian schools because it’s much easier to control compliant sheep than well-educated critical thinkers. They can’t get their religious agenda into public schools, so they will destroy public schools. Once this policy is instituted, there will soon be a bunch of new private Christian schools that will accept those vouchers as 100% tuition. These won’t be good schools, as well-educated students well-prepared for the global marketplace is not their primary goal. Indoctrination will come first (Bibles can be bought a lot more cheaply than computers and science labs), academics will come second. It’s going to happen unless people starting voting these traitors out of office.