In a commentary I wrote for the Texas Tribune in 2015, I complained that vouchers — or their euphemism, educational savings accounts — are zombie bills that come up every session and refuse to die. Each session, they are defeated because the majority of Texans support their public schools and want to improve them, not siphon decreased funds to private schools with little or no oversight.
Last time around a bill by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, was only six pages long. This year I had to study at 39-page document. What follows is a discussion of some of its more alarming points.
Senate Bill 3, Article 1 states that the purpose of the bill is to “improve public schools and overall academic performance, promote efficiency, promote and preserve the liberties and rights of the people, and to increase parental options.”
When the overall goal of the bill is to hand taxpayer dollars to individuals to use toward private school tuitions — or perhaps to purchase a new computer for home schooling — this bill does nothing to improve public schools. This first statement reminds me of the “alternative facts” our new president’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, is promoting. Let’s call these “fake rationales.”
If the second goal — to promote efficiency — is genuine, why do many pages of the bill establish comptrollers, reports and complicated procedures to fend off abuse?
No one’s liberty and rights are abridged by our state’s funding of a public school system as established in Article VII of our state constitution. Any parent has the right to home school or send a child to a private or parochial school. If the parents do not have the resources to do so, they may apply for scholarships provided by these schools. If there are not enough scholarships, the private schools need to raise more funds.
In terms of increasing parental options, public school districts include many available options for parents — including transfers, magnet schools, fine arts academies, Honors tracking, AP classes, dual-language instruction, Global Studies Academies, International Baccalaureate programs, to name only a few — that are offered in Austin ISD. Parents can also choose among many public charters schools as alternatives to district schools.
In terms of parental options, it’s the private schools that will hold all the cards. The law states clearly: “A private school may not be required to modify the school’s creed, practices, admissions policies, curriculum, performance standards, or assessments to receive funds distributed under the program.”
In other words, private schools can continue to discriminate against any voucher child pursuing admission for all the above reasons — reasons that public schools are by law not allowed. Notice also that these private schools will not be held to the same accountability standards that public schools are forced to comply under, most notably state-mandated standardized tests. With public money comes public accountability — but not in this bill.
Perhaps the most pernicious portion of the bill falls under Article 2: Tax Credit Scholarship and Educational Expense Assistance Program, as it applies to the parents of children with disabilities. In order to use the additional educational scholarships, “the notice must inform the parent that a qualifying school is not subject to laws regarding the provision of education services in the same manner as a public school, and a student with disabilities attending a qualifying school may not receive the services a student with disabilities attending a public school is entitled to under federal and state law.”
This is truly shocking. The private schools receiving scholarships do not have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is then named specifically.
Texans need to wake up and rally to halt this year’s zombie bill from becoming law. The only silver lining to the Betsy DeVos confirmation to secretary of education is that it energized and politicized so many public school supporters throughout the nation, including here in Texas. More Texans now understand what vouchers are and how they directly harm public education.
Let’s come together to support our schools and improve educational outcomes for 5.3 million Texas children.
Stevenson is an Austin educator.