As Texas public schools beg for funding, Texas charter schools … buy luxury horse ranches.

This year, National School Choice Week fell just a week after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proclaimed before the Legislature that he and Gov. Greg Abbott are “all in” on “school choice.” 

What’s normally a week in which voucher proponents and charter school operators share the alleged benefits of school privatization started with a different sort of bang this year. On Jan. 22, the San Antonio Express-News published an eye-opening story about the legal loopholes many charter school chains exploit for profit

The most eye-catching example mentioned is Dallas-area Universal Academy, which bought a luxury horse ranch and equestrian center from former ExxonMobil Chairman Rex Tillerson in 2020. The property — and its show barn “designed with Normandy-style cathedral ceilings” — reportedly will house riding lessons for students on a new elementary school campus, but that claim is worth some scrutiny.  

As reporters Edward McKinley and Eric Dexheimer write, “an analysis by Hearst Newspapers found cases in which charter schools collected valuable real estate at great cost to taxpayers but with a tenuous connection to student learning. In others, administrators own the school facilities and have collected millions from charging rent to the same schools they run.”

These are stories from existing charter schools (publicly funded, but privately run). Imagine what private schools, with even less scrutiny, might get up to with public money if the Legislature were to pass a voucher scheme. 

Meanwhile, true Texas public schools — the ones 76% of parents give an A or B grade — haven’t seen an increase in state funding since 2019. Texas, with the ninth-largest economy in the world and a $33 billion budget surplus, is 39th in the nation for per-pupil funding. Vouchers would make it even worse. For every student who would leave a public school through a voucher program in Texas, a public school would lose about $10,000 in funding

We talked in depth about this topic on Wednesday with Dr. David DeMatthews, an education policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin. If you missed the event, you can watch the conversation on our Youtube channel“Lawmakers in Austin need to think long and hard about who they’re listening to this session,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas AFT, in a statement this week. Are you listening to the radical privatizers who nearly sold Wimberley’s public schools to the highest bidder? Or are you listening to most Texans who care very deeply about their obligation to support a free public education for all kids? That’s the real school choice.”