Conservatives support school choice. However, rural elected officials, many of whom are also conservative, generally do not.
There’s an inherent conflict in this that partly explains why the broad issue of education reform has made some progress in Texas in recent years but the narrower issue of school choice has not.
School choice offers a fundamental question: Should there be competition in public education? The only serious answer to that question is “yes.”
Asked another way, who would oppose competition? The answer is the opponents of school choice, who are generally made up of liberals, school districts, teachers’ unions and some rural Republicans who do not believe school choice options currently exist in rural areas.
What will happen during the biennial legislative session that begins Jan. 10? I fully expect education to be a big issue in two separate — but perhaps related — ways.
Democrats and their allies want to increase funding for public education. They cite a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that declared the state’s current school finance system as “unconstitutional” and criticized the current level of funding in our public education system. The court chose not to remedy the system in the belief that setting education funding levels is the job of the Texas Legislature.
In that ruling the court stated: “Our Constitution endows the people’s elected representatives with vast discretion in fulfilling their constitutional duty to fashion a school system fit for our dynamic and fast-growing state’s unique characteristics. We hope lawmakers will seize this urgent challenge and upend an ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas.”
Conservative Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and several stalwart Texas Senate conservatives, are pushing school choice legislation to create education savings accounts (or ESAs), modeled after the successful program in Nevada, which their own Supreme Court upheld earlier this year.
Let us first make sure we understand how ESAs work, as many opponents will pejoratively, falsely and reflexively deem them “vouchers.”
As the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute’s John Colyandro and State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) jointly wrote for the Dallas Morning News: “Five states have enacted ESA education choice, wherein parents apply for the program and un-enroll their child from public school. Next, the state funds an account that parents can use to pay for numerous services related to their child’s education. Parents could pay private school tuition or a tutor, purchase curriculum for homeschooling or a digital learning class, or save some money for college tuition, for example. If parents don’t use all of their ESA dollars in one year, they can roll over to the remainder to the next school year. The opportunities for customization would empower parents to craft an education to meet a child’s unique learning needs, using only those services the child needs and seeking out both quality and value. This would be especially powerful for parents of special needs students. There would be financial and academic accountability, as well, to guarantee that this program works for parents, students and taxpayers alike.”
ESAs offer choice, flexibility and ease of use. They put the spending power back in the hands of the parents, not the bureaucrat.
I foresee a trade that could be made, perhaps at the end of the legislative session or in a special session: Democrats get increased funding for public education, and conservatives get ESAs and more competition in education. Parents win both ways, as their public schools are better funded and they can save dollars — tax-free — to ensure that every child has public education options.
ESAs answer a fundamental question: Are public education dollars the state’s money, or are they effectively each individual parent’s money?
Undoubtedly the state has a responsibility to ensure that our children are educated through 12th grade. But they also have a responsibility to make sure that every child is educated.
Trapping poor kids in failing schools, whether they be public schools, charter schools, or private schools, should be entirely unacceptable.
We know our public education system in Texas needs improvement. Competition improves all things in life. It will do so for educating our kids.
Why would any parent want to trust their child’s future to a monopoly?
Mackowiak is syndicated columnist, an Austin-based Republican consultant and a former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.