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Gov. Greg Abbott doesn’t seem inclined to let the issue of school choice go until lawmakers approve the measure. After efforts to pass a voucher bill failed in the regular legislative session and three special sessions, Abbott has called a fourth session to continue pushing the measure as well as border security proposals.
This isn’t just a pipe dream of the governor and other religious fundamentalists; many Texas families say they are unhappy with current public school options. Many didn’t send their children back to class after COVID-19-related campus closures ended, opting to continue homeschooling and online classes. Charter schools still fill up as fast as they’re built, and the idea of some kind of direct funding to families, such as vouchers or education funding accounts, has widespread public support.
Naturally, officials and advocates of traditional public schools are fighting hard against school choice. Teachers groups have spent enormous amounts of money and manpower trying to influence public opinion and lobbying lawmakers to oppose school choice. President Biden has even threatened to issue an executive order banning charter schools anywhere traditional public schools have space for the students.
Opponents of choice focus a great deal on the amount of money that is lost when alternative schools lead to reductions in their own enrollment. Their concern isn’t just a grab for money. Federal and state education funding is based on enrollment, and although fewer students will reduce direct costs such as school supplies, fewer teachers’ salaries and school lunches, for example, many overhead and other indirect costs, such as utilities, building maintenance and insurance, won’t go down. Lower per-student funding can send district budgets into the red, forcing school boards to take the unpopular step of raising local property taxes. Lower enrollment also can affect sports and other extracurricular activities by forcing realignments.
Lobbying efforts certainly are understandable, but public school officials should evaluate their systems, at all levels from state to local, to try to determine why so many families want to try something different in the first place.
There won’t be one answer, and all families might not give the same reason. All families won’t say they want religious indoctrination, which is a common allegation heard in the fight against vouchers.
Maybe families don’t like the bloated bureaucracy that characterize most public schools. Maybe they don’t like the one-size-fits-all structure, or curricula that are too liberal for some, too restrictive for others. Perhaps they chafe at heavy political influence they must bear in the current system, whether it’s book bans and other state mandates or infighting and turmoil in local school boards.
Public schools and their supporters aren’t likely to give up the fight, but they should start considering the inevitability of public choice, and hedge their bets by also working to ensure that any public support for private education is accountable to the taxpayers who will fund them, and to the families who will entrust their children to them.