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No matter what they’re called, vouchers won’t improve public schools

As the saying goes, a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

Similarly, vouchers by any other name still stink.

You would think that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other lawmakers in love with vouchers would know as much by now, after more than a decade of pushing to get them passed into law. Instead, they continue romanticizing them as the answer for improving public schools, especially low-performing ones.

If the goal of the latest voucher measure, Senate Bill 3, is really to “improve public schools and overall academic performance,” then lawmakers must see them for what they are — not what they imagine or want them to be.

In all forms, including the latest dressed up version called “education savings accounts,” vouchers divert public school dollars to private schools. One analysis by the liberal-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates that Central Texas schools could lose $86 million if the Legislature passes SB 3.

Critics dispute that number. What is not in dispute is that public schools would lose significant dollars as their students transfer to private schools. Central Texas districts — including Austin, Eanes, Pflugerville, Round Rock and Lake Travis — have told their lawmakers they are financially strapped and unable to absorb any more losses to their bottom lines without cutting into instruction.

Savings accounts, like other voucher programs, would hand private schools a check paid for by Texas taxpayers but would not hold recipients in the private sector accountable for results the state spells out to public schools in underfunded mandates.

Patrick asserts public schools would be made better by competition afforded by savings accounts that go to private schools. But it’s cheating when the race is rigged in favor of private schools, as SB 3 does.

Under SB 3, private schools could continue cherry-picking students with their selective policies or expel low-performing students, while public schools still would be required to enroll and educate all-comers. Public schools don’t have the option of ejecting lower-performing students and can be harshly penalized by the state for their failures.

While public schools are measured in part on their dropout rates, private schools can escape such accountability through attrition rates that don’t count students as dropouts if they return to public schools.

And there are legitimate questions about equity, such as whether SB 3 provisions would help wealthier families who could make up the difference in tuition from their own pockets to pay the bills at private schools while poorer families couldn’t afford such tuitions — even with a voucher or education savings account.

The bill by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, does little, if anything, to resolve such equity and financial issues at the core of establishing a voucher system that is fair and accountable.

Instead, SB 3, like its predecessors, shows how little Patrick, Taylor and other voucher supporters understand the educational and economic decisions facing low- to middle-income families. It also illustrates their insensitivity to the challenges public schools confront in delivering quality instruction in a school financing system that is antiquated and underfunded.

Specifically, Taylor’s bill would establish a system of so-called education savings accounts that would use state money to offset costs for private school tuition and home-schooling. Those accounts would be overseen by parents or guardians who could use them to defray other costs as well, such as online courses, educational therapies and tutors.

Under SB 3, a family of four with an income above $89,910 would receive $5,400 per eligible student, while a similarly situated family with an income of less than that would get about $6,750 per student, The Texas Tribune reported.

To bridge a big gap between those amounts and private school tuition and fees, the bill would set up tax credit scholarships, which allow certain businesses to claim tax credits for donating money to the scholarships for private schools. The money would be awarded based on a student’s academic or financial need.

Thankfully, lawmakers in the Texas House are more clear-eyed about vouchers. House Speaker Joe Straus has shown little enthusiasm for them so far — and they have also not proved to be popular with some Republicans who represent small or rural communities.

Aside from educating kids, public schools in smaller communities are some of the largest employers. They serve as a center for sports, recreation, adult education and public meetings. As small districts, they can’t afford to lose money.

Many school districts, including Austin, find themselves in the same boat, albeit for different reasons.

In the next school year, the Austin district estimates it will send $500 million of its local property tax revenue to the state in recapture payments Texas uses to balance inequities between property-wealthy districts and property-poor districts. That would leave Austin with $757.8 million for operating expenses.

Vouchers could further diminish that figure. It’s true that SB 3 aims to help lessen the financial blow to districts by allowing them to keep some of the money they would lose when a student using an education savings account leaves.

But there’s a caustic irony in an approach that punishes Austin and many other districts that are forced to shoulder much of the state’s responsibility in paying public education costs through recapture, then further drains their budgets through a voucher program.

SB 3 is hardly a rose. But the public school that continues to do the tough job of educating every child clearly is.

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