Vouchers, Charters, Districts of Innovation Debated in Texas Senate Committee

With eight witnesses invited to give lengthy testimony in support of private-school vouchers and zero witnesses invited to speak in opposition, the deck was obviously stacked at the Texas Senate Education Committee’s September 14 hearing on “school choice.” But a broad coalition of parents, educators, and community leaders patiently waited for their opportunity at the end of the day-long hearing to give a spirited critique of the private-school voucher agenda.

Whether you call them vouchers or “education savings accounts” or “tuition tax credits” or anything else, coalition witnesses testified, they all amount to a subsidy to unaccountable private schools at the expense of public education. The coalition message paralleled skeptical questions directed at the voucher advocates by Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), and Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas).

Key themes of voucher critics: Voucher amounts would not suffice to give low-income children access to exclusive private schools; private schools do not play by the same rules, as they are free to maintain selective admissions policies that weed out high-need students, while neighborhood public schools accept all comers; vouchers drain public funds from public schools that desperately need the money to deliver a quality education to the vast majority of Texas schoolchildren; and the evidence shows that vouchers do not improve educational quality—not for the students who attend private schools and not for the students who remain in public school. Coalition for Public Schools coordinator Dr. Charles Luke spoke for all on the anti-voucher side when he said the right response to public schools with high concentrations of struggling students is to “double down,” intensifying the state’s effort and commitment of resources to help them succeed, not to drain those already-underfunded schools of taxpayer dollars for the benefit of private schools.

Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi added that the state needs to fix its existing versions of “school choice” such as charter schools before it considers embracing other states’ voucher schemes. She noted examples of a continuing lack of rigor in state standards for charter applicants, and she cited overwhelming evidence of the inferior education delivered by online charter schools. Quinzi also urged lawmakers to rethink the authority they have given school districts to mimic charter schools, call themselves “districts of innovation,” and thereby exempt themselves from important state safeguards of educational quality such as class-size limits in grades K-4.