Commentary: Texas’ embarrassing baby steps for schools


Legislators’ pickups long ago pulled away from Austin and headed home across Texas, leaving us now to reflect upon what was accomplished this past session. For our tiniest Texans, it’s now clear that only baby steps were made towards Gov. Greg Abbott’s goal of “becoming No. 1 in education.”

It was telling that so few of our delegation stepped outside to show even cursory support for the crowd that came to the School Choice rally back in January. It’s no wonder that the 84th Legislature couldn’t point to even one school choice accomplishment like Senate Bill 4, a tax break that would have benefited a small portion of the very neediest students. There are more than 100,000 students languishing on charter school wait lists, and the Texas Tax Credit Scholarship Program would have benefited some 15,000 kids who have to clear the hurdles of being not only low-income and special-needs, but zoned to a program the state has determined to be “failing.” Some 730,000 Texas students currently attend a failing school.

By what argument can someone justify sending a Texas child to a struggling school, rather than allowing them to enroll in a promising alternative? It’s time for an upgrade. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calls it the civil rights fight of our generation, saying “I dream of the day when every parent has the choice to send their child to the school they pick because they believe it’s best for their child.” Yet legislators also killed bills like Senate Bill 276 by Sen. Donna Campbell, which would have permitted parents to personally spend the funds currently controlled by bureaucrats but earmarked for their own child’s education at a school of their choice.

It should be an embarrassment to our legislators — and the voters who hired them — to glance at the offerings some other states enacted to great success. This year, Nevada established a universal Education Savings Account program, which allows parents to use state funds on any number of approved expenses, and save the unused money for future school years. Montana and Tennessee established new school-choice programs. Oklahoma expanded their charter-school option across the state. Indiana will provide higher per-pupil funding for charter schools and low-interest loans to help charter operators pay for facilities. Louisiana’s Scholarship Program, expanded statewide in 2012, saves taxpayers some $15 million and now enrolls about 5,000 children. Alabama raised the cap on tax credits for their scholarship program. All in all, 46 school-choice programs provide parental choice for families across the nation.

But not in Texas. And why not?

We could close the race and income achievement gaps. Studies from academics at UT-Austin, Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and MIT show that school choice improves student achievement. Harvard scholars found that college enrollment by minorities increased by 25 percent with school choice, and that enrollment in selective colleges by African-Americans doubled. The U.S. Department of Education found that high school graduation rates increased by 12 percentage points in Washington D.C., from 70 percent to 82 percent.

School choice deserves a closer look than it received this legislative session; it passed the Senate, but stalled in the House.

The freedom permitted to Texas parents is nowhere near equal to the freedom enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of other parents in other states. That’s something Texas legislators should’ve thought about before they drove away from Austin this year.

Barba is a policy analyst with the Center for Education Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Van Arnam is a charter school parent.


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