School Choice: Texas lawmakers proposing bringing taxpayer funding to private schools

The debate is heating up over a bill in the Texas Senate that would give parents thousands of dollars in taxpayer cash to take their kids out of public schools and send them to private schools or homeschooling.

It was a marathon meeting over school choice in the Texas Senate Education Committee that went all the way until 1 a.m. Thursday morning. 

Senate Public Education Chair Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) is the author of a bill that aims to bring taxpayer funding to private schools in Texas.

"We all know we wouldn't tell a mom or dad what is best for their kids. Of course, the essence of being a Texan is respecting that they know what is best for their family," he said.

Students with face masks enter their classroom at the Petri primary school in Dortmund, western Germany, on August 12, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - Schools in the western federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia re-started und

Any student could qualify to receive $8,000 for private or home school expenses, but two-thirds of the $500 million allotted under the bill would be prioritized for students at poor-performing campuses. The remainder would be available for any student. 

"Largest pool of students who would qualify for school choice program in America ever," said Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston). "In the great state of Texas, a rising tide lifts all boats."

If enacted, Texas would be the 31st state in the nation to offer public money for private schools, in this case, through what would be an education savings account. 

Some lawmakers raised concerns about how similar systems are working in other states. 

"The research I've done shows these programs are not working in Louisiana, Indiana," said State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas).

Creighton admitted that voucher programs also need work in Washington D.C. and New York.

"I’ll work with you on best practices," he said.  "Our founders set up states as incubators of success."

State Sen. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) argued it is not fair that the bill would not apply to students already attending private school or homeschooling. 

"We have had working-class parents who have sacrificed to send kids to school $7,500 a year, drive an old car, don't take vacations because they want something better for their kids," he said. "Then their neighbor is able to get an education savings account. I don't see the fairness in that."

"We have to start somewhere. There is a scarcity of dollars," Creighton said.

Sunnyvale ISD Superintendent Doug Williams says Senate Bill 8 would be taking away much of the school accountability measures the governor has worked hard to establish, like the A-F rating system.

"Senate Bill 8 says that accountability instrument would not go to private schools," he said. "Our concern is you have public funds, and they go to the private school without the accountability piece."

In the past, rural Republican lawmakers have rejected the voucher system proposal out of concerns about the impact on their public schools. 

To get those lawmakers on board, Creighton's bill would offer districts with fewer than 20,000 students a total of $20,000 for each student who leaves. 

Williams said that amount of money would likely not be enough to prevent layoffs if many students left a small district.