Fact vs. Fiction: The ‘Demand’ for School Vouchers

David DeMatthews, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas, and David S. Knight, associate professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington, broke down school voucher rhetoric in the Houston Chronicle this week.

The Legislature may be adjourned (for the moment), but state leaders’ quest to bring a private school voucher program to Texas is far from finished. 

Gov. Greg Abbott’s attacks on public education and educators have continued in a steady drumbeat on social media, and he has paired those attacks repeatedly with “evidence” of the demand for school vouchers

And it’s not just the governor. At a panel discussion hosted by The Texas Tribune this week, state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), the author of voucher bill SB 8 this session, echoed those claims:

“The governor … didn’t establish school choice as an emergency item because traveling the state told him that school choice was not the preference of most Texas parents. He established school choice as an emergency item because he heard that parents across this state not only preferred it, but demanded it.”

On its face, this is a disingenuous claim as the governor’s barnstorming voucher tour almost exclusively visited small religious private schools. It’s easy to wonder if he talked to any public school parents. 

But let’s entertain the question: Is Sen. Creighton right? Are the parents of Texas demanding “school choice”? This week, education policy professors David DeMatthews and David S. Knight provided some answers in a Houston Chronicle op-ed

“In a recent statewide poll, 73 percent of Texans identified school safety, teacher pay, curriculum content and public school financing as top priorities. In the same poll, few Texans viewed vouchers as a priority, although stark differences in opinion emerged between Democrats and Republicans. Only eight percent of Texans prioritized vouchers.”

Why the disconnect? In short, advocacy groups have spent millions to mislead the public, as the Washington Post has reported, and politicians are using these efforts to advance their goals: dismantling K-12 education. 

In a discussion with the Network for Public Education, Charles Siler, a former lobbyist and public relations chief for the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, outlined the playbook for school privatizers:

“There’s virtually no other initiative in the education space that’s a bigger priority for the right today than creating and expanding unaccountable, unrestricted, universal voucher programs. They aren’t doing it because their constituents are demanding these programs. Voters continually reject voucher programs, and in any state where a public response is permitted, the wave of public opposition to these programs dwarfs the AstroTurfed support for them. They also fervently refuse to include any kind of measures to mitigate fraud, waste, abuse and lack of accountability in these voucher programs despite having evidence from established programs.” 

Sound familiar? That’s exactly what we’re seeing in Texas. As DeMatthews and Knight point out, the polls showing “overwhelming” support for vouchers never seem to factor in the large numbers of Texans who say they don’t know enough about the issue to have an opinion. 

The professors’ observation tracks with other poll findings that the more Texans know and understand about current voucher proposals, the less they like them: 

“What Texan would support vouchers if they knew recent studies found students using vouchers underperformed on standardized tests relative to their public school peers?

What Texan would support vouchers after learning that the cost of Arizona’s voucher program ballooned from $65 million to a projected $900 million in a few years? And that vouchers disproportionately benefited families who were already sending their children to private schools?”

Educators were frustrated during the 88th regular legislative session by Creighton’s insistence on pushing private school voucher legislation to the detriment of school funding bills. Texas AFT members sent 688 emails to Creighton’s office to demand that educator raises be the priority, not risky voucher schemes. They also called and visited his office frequently. 

Will Creighton and other legislators listen to real educators voicing real concerns or AstroTurfed activists spending millions to mislead Texas parents? We’ll find out in October.