Speaking Out Against State Senate’s Voucher Plan

An all-day, all-evening hearing on the top voucher bill in the Texas Senate has made it plain that even in the pro-voucher Senate there will be serious resistance to the diversion of taxpayer dollars without accountability to private schools. Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro, testifying late in the evening on Tuesday, recapped what scores of educators, parents, civil-rights activists, special-education advocates, and other concerned citizens had said throughout the day:  no to vouchers, in any guise.

The voucher vehicle in question is SB 3, which would set up two voucher schemes, one called an “education savings account,” the other labeled a “tax-credit scholarship.” As Malfaro and other witnesses said, these are just versions of vouchers by another name, despite fitful attempts by pro-voucher witnesses and senators to claim otherwise.

Malfaro said the senators were hearing testimony Tuesday from a wide array of Texans frustrated that lawmakers are wasting time on schemes to divert public funding to private schools at a time when the real challenge is to provide the resources needed to educate the 850,000-plus students added to enrollments in the past decade. His point was bolstered by an official cost estimate on SB 3 that indicated it could drain hundreds of millions of dollars from the already-underfunded public schools in just the first few years–probably an underestimate, but still a sign of fiscal folly.

Another Texas AFT witness, Sara Stevenson of Education Austin, noted that the private schools receiving the money would not have to meet financial and academic accountability requirements that the state imposes on the public schools. Nor would educational and due-process safeguards apply for students and their parents–especially of concern to those who would lose extensive rights and protections under federal law for students with disabilities. Malfaro also pointed to recent independent studies of vouchers in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana that found those programs actually have had negative academic results for voucher-enrolled students.

Texas AFT’s Malfaro echoed witnesses from civil-rights groups who recalled the origin of private-school vouchers as a tool to maintain racial segregation after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the “separate but equal” doctrine specious and unconstitutional. Like a number of clergy members who testified, Malfaro also observed that the state has no business funding private schools that can discriminate in admissions on the basis of religion and have as their mission the propagation of particular religious beliefs.

More than 5,000 letters from Texas AFT members and friends flowed into lawmakers’ offices as the voucher hearing approached, and Texas AFT members also made hundreds of phone calls in opposition to SB 3. At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, the bill was left pending. Its chances of eventual passage in committee are still good, given the known leanings of a majority of committee members. But in the Senate as a whole it’s not so certain after Tuesday’s hearing that the bill will have the 19 votes it needs out of 31–and in the House any voucher bill deservedly will face an uphill fight.