Central Texas school districts could lose $86 million next year if lawmakers pass a contentious bill that would divert state money to private schools, according to an analysis by the liberal think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities.
The biggest blow would be to the Austin school district, which could lose $26 million if Senate Bill 3 passes, according to the group.
Statewide, districts could lose a cumulative $2 billion.
“If the calculations of SB 3 are accurate and Eanes ISD would lose $2.4 million in revenue, the disruption to our programs and effect on our class sizes would be significant,” said Tom Leonard, superintendent of the Eanes school district. “The result would most likely result in staff reductions that would cause class sizes to increase, as well as diminishing our ability to provide raises or benefit increases for remaining staff.”
SB 3, filed by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would create a system of so-called education savings accounts, using state money, and tax credit scholarships, which opponents have compared to private school voucher systems.
Students leaving public school could use the savings accounts to pay for a variety of education services, including tuition for private schools, online courses and educational therapies.
For those students who leave public school, SB 3 would redirect the per-student state money the school district receives to the savings accounts.
Low-income students could also qualify for tax credit scholarships to use toward private school tuition; businesses that donate to the scholarship fund would receive a tax credit from the state.
The public will have an opportunity to give input on the bill during a Senate Education Committee hearing Thursday.
A blow to districts?
Opponents of SB 3 argue that not only will money be stripped from school districts — which have had to shoulder more of the state’s school funding burden each year — but private school vouchers won’t improve the education of poor and minority students, in large part because private schools tend to be concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods in urban areas. Even with money from the state, poorer families won’t be able to afford the high cost of private school tuition, opponents say.
SB 3 has become a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate. They have said it would expand options for parents whose children are stuck in public schools that don’t meet their needs. But neither House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, nor House Education Committee chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, has said he would support a system of private school vouchers.
“It’s part of a broader campaign to privatize core government function,” said Ann Beeson, executive director of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities and author of the report.
SB 3’s hit to districts’ pocketbooks was calculated by assuming that 5 percent of students would leave to choose some of the options available under SB 3 in the first year of implementation. Beeson said that the percentage was based on how private school vouchers affected public schools in other states.
SB 3 would lessen the blow by allowing public schools to keep some of the money they would lose when a student leaves and opts for an education savings account. But Beeson said that school districts have fixed costs, such as teachers’ salaries and maintenance of buildings, and having fewer students won’t save them much money.
Randan Steinhauser, policy adviser for Texans for Education Opportunity, which helped craft the bill, said that the system will save the state money and that the concerns of public schools are overblown. She said that even if students transfer out, districts would still receive money to cover fixed costs.
A report from EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based school organization that advocates school choice, showed that 10 voucher systems saved states $1.7 billion between 1990 and 2011. The savings were realized by tapping into private school resources and creating competition in the education market space, the report concluded.
“Across the country we have seen in the first few years of a school choice program a 1 percent enrollment, and that is even an extreme case,” Steinhauser said. “For every one student that may potentially participate in a school choice program, we’re getting two new students into the system every single year, simply based on population growth in the state. So I think this is actually one way to take pressure off of our neighborhood schools based on that population growth.”
The Austin school district has lost a few thousand students over the past four years and is expected to lose another 170 in 2017-18. The declines have come as enrollments in neighboring school districts and local charter schools have seen steady increases.
The student losses cost the school district millions in state funding. And because the state’s complex school finance system is tied in part to the attendance of students, having fewer students means the district must give more in recapture payments, required from property-wealthy districts to subsidize property-poor districts.
More than half a billion dollars of the district’s $1.3 billion budget next school year is expected to go to the state in a recapture payment. That would leave the district $757.8 million for operating expenses.
Officials said they can’t see how losing students would save the district money.
“Administratively, the district has to pay employees and vendors, staff all schools, provide technology, offer a range of services from payroll to communications and community engagement, ensure accountability by reporting data and test scores to the TEA and provide a rigorous curriculum,” said David Edgar, executive director of finance. “If the district were to lose 5 percent of students, which is approximately 4,150 students, many of the fixed costs remain.”