Hazard Warning—March 21 Voucher Attack on Texas Public Education!

(Update: A Senate Education hearing on SB 3 was held on March 21, and the committee could vote on the bill as early as Thursday, March 23.)

Send an online letter to your legislators now! (This is a new campaign, so you’re encouraged to send a letter, even if you’ve taken action before.)

SB 3, the big voucher bill of the 2017 session by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), comes up for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, March 21. The bill is a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate. SB 3 is a key piece of the three-part attack mounted by Patrick and his backers against public education. Their strategy:  deprive our schools of adequate funding, demonize our schools as failures based on the misuse of standardized testing, and then privatize them.

Vouchers subsidizing private schools are the payoff for the proponents of this strategy. It is the private schools, not the schoolchildren of Texas, that stand to benefit from this demolition of neighborhood public schools. Please make your voice heard now in opposition to SB 3 and the attack on public education!

SB 3 has rightly been called a double-barreled giveaway to private schools at the expense of public education. It contains two different versions of the voucher scheme. One would take thousands of dollars per voucher pupil out of the public schools for various forms of private schooling. The other would give businesses a dollar-for-dollar state tax break for financing private-school “scholarships” and other educational services.  The independent Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin estimates that just the first of these two schemes (known as “educational savings accounts”) would cost the public schools more than $2 billion a year. This drain of funding would occur at the very time when Texas public schools are in a tough fight at the Capitol just to piece together enough state aid in the 2018-2019 budget to avoid per-pupil funding cuts.

What would this takeaway of public funding for private schools accomplish, exactly? The backers of SB 3 say it would help disadvantaged children “trapped in failing schools.” But the bill doesn’t limit eligibility for a voucher to students enrolled in a low-rated school. Nor does it provide enough funding for families of modest means to cover the full cost of a good private school. SB 3 would primarily benefit better-off families that want the state to cover part of their child’s private-school tuition.

SB 3 would award extra funding to voucher students with disabilities, but still the funding would not come close to the typical cost of tuition for a private school capable of meeting their needs. Speaking of meeting their needs, voucher students with disabilities would lose their extensive protection under federal law ensuring an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, because that protection does not apply to private schools.

Lack of accountability for the effective use of public education dollars is pervasive under this bill. SB 3 is chock-full of language that exempts private schools and other vendors of educational products and services from public accountability. A typical example is this one concerning permissible uses of the voucher money:  “The content or religious nature of a product or service may not be considered in determining whether a payment for the product or service is an expense allowed” under the “educational savings account” version of vouchers. So no inquiry into the educational value of the product or service paid for by Texas taxpayers is authorized under this and similar provisions of SB 3.

And SB 3 voucher schools retain full freedom to discriminate in admissions practices—for example, by excluding students based on disciplinary history or academic proficiency—while public schools take all comers.

Private schools as a whole have seen their enrollment decline in recent years, and when you look at the results of voucher schemes in other states you can see why. Academic benefits from taxpayer-funded transfers to private schools generally have ranged from negligible to downright negative. Recent independent studies of vouchers in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana have shown a negative impact from vouchers on students’ educational performance.

SB 3 deserves the opposition of every supporter of public education in Texas. The Legislature ought to be focused not on vouchers but on adequate funding of public education, constructive accountability measures, and proven, evidence-based policies for improving struggling schools and benefiting all Texas schoolchildren. Send your letter now!