Are education savings accounts the new private school vouchers?

Updated Sept 14, 2016

Public school supporters want to keep state money out of the pockets of private schools, although the idea — popular among conservatives — is gaining traction months before the legislative session.

Advocates of the so-called school choice movement want the state to give each Texas student who no longer wants to attend public school an education savings account. The student would use the account to pay for other education options, such as private schools, tutors, curriculum for home schooling or college credit courses, giving students more choice in their education, according to proponents.

Public school supporters aren’t buying it. They say education savings accounts are masquerading as private school vouchers, diverting money from cash-strapped school districts to private schools without holding them to the same standard of accountability.

“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can call a voucher something else, but it’s still a voucher,” said Charles Luke of the Coalition for Public Schools, which opposes using public funds to support private and religious schools. “We need to invest in our community schools rather than create a completely separate, parallel system and expand government.”

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On Wednesday, the state Senate Committee on Education will discuss possible school choice legislation to create education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships.

The latter is another divisive program that would give tax credits to businesses that help fund scholarships for students who want to go to a private school.

Republican lawmakers proposed both ideas last legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has long considered expanding school choice a top education priority, particularly as a way for students to escape low-performing public schools.

Five states have education savings accounts.

“Parents in Texas really want to customize their child’s education,” said Randan Steinhauser, who co-founded the school choice advocacy group Texans for Education Opportunity in the spring. “By the way that the program is designed, if you’re enrolling in an education savings account, then you’re removing your child from a public school because it isn’t working for them.”

The state money in an education savings account would be loaded on a debit card and would be less than the state funding school districts receive for each student, Steinhauser said.

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Steinhauser said her group recognizes that public schools are meeting the needs of many students and doesn’t expect education savings accounts to cause a mass exodus from Texas public schools.

State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, proposed legislation last year that would have created education savings accounts, capping the number of eligible students. He said he will file a similar bill for this upcoming session and will consider opening eligibility to any student who leaves a public school, similar to a system in Nevada.

He said the system will drive competition and improve the state’s education system while ensuring that those receiving public dollars will be held accountable.

“This is about making public schools better. Texas has a lot of great public schools, and this is about empowering the students and parents, and not the buildings and bureaucrats,” Huffines said. “We’re looking at best practices for the five states.”

Public school proponents argue that plenty of choices exist in local school districts, including magnet, single-gender, fine arts and career-technology campuses.

Jodi Duron, Elgin school district superintendent, said that education savings accounts don’t promise more choice. Private schools don’t necessarily have to offer special education programming or accept a student because they have a savings account.

“Let’s not forget what public education in America means. It means a tuition-free education for all students. It means the promise of equal educational opportunities, no matter race, religion or ability,” Duron said.