Gov. Abbott Ups the Ante on ‘School Choice’ Debate Despite National Voucher Horror Stories

State funding for public education is under siege on several fronts. The specter of school privatization threatens the foundations of our public schools — along with the raises our school staff so desperately need. Illustration by Sierra Wiggers.

On Tuesday night, as most Texans were preparing for a severe ice storm, Gov. Greg Abbott gave his most full-throated endorsement to date of school voucher schemes. 

As he has done previously, Abbott chose a private religious school to deliver his remarks on “parental choice.” This time, however, there were no “linguistic gymnastics.” Speaking at Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi, Abbott said “every child in the state of Texas” should have access to what he calls an education savings account. 

Those who have paid attention to previous legislative sessions in Texas will recognize “education savings account” as a seemingly friendly rebranding of school vouchers.

As we noted in a post for The Texas Tribune this week, whatever you call it, a voucher is still a voucher:

Whatever you call them, they will drain money from Texas’ already underfunded schools. Our state is 39th in the nation for per-pupil funding. As recently as 2020, the U.S. Department of Education found that the state, through chronic underfunding, was denying legally required support to students with disabilities. 

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Bad Bills of the Week: Vouchers in the Texas Legislature

A number of bills have been filed already for various voucher schemes in the 88th Legislature. Here are some of the bad bills we’re watching: 

SB 176 by Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) would create a private school voucher fund administered by the comptroller and carved out of the general revenue fund. The state would contract with nonprofits to award these vouchers to qualified applicants. The state would partially fund this program by awarding significant tax credits to corporations who donate to the program.

HB 557 by Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) would create a voucher reimbursement program administered by the comptroller for tuition, private tutoring, transportation, school supplies, and other private education expenses. Each reimbursement would be capped at the deduction amount for state and local sales and use taxes claimed by the parent on their most recent federal income taxes. These reimbursements would be paid out of public education funds.

HB 619 by Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) would create a private school voucher program for certain students funded by corporate donations and administered by a nonprofit. These corporations would receive a significant tax credit for their “donations,” tax dollars that would otherwise go to the general revenue fund and could be used to fund public education.

HB 1892 by Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) would create a voucher reimbursement program administered by the comptroller for private school tuition. Each tuition reimbursement would be capped at 80% of the state average maintenance and operations expenditures per student and would be paid for from funds that could otherwise fund public education. The bill specifically states private schools that participate in this program will not be accountable or regulated by any new state law.

SJR 29 by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) would amend the Texas Constitution to give parents the “right” to “choose an alternative to public education including a private school, parochial school, or home-school.”

Ohio Department of Education Investigates Neo-Nazi Home-School Network

This week, news reports broke, unmasking an Ohio couple as leaders of the “Dissident Homeschool” network, a channel on the Telegram instant messaging app that disseminates neo-Nazi lesson plans for home schooling. 

Content warning: You can read more about the so-called curriculum from Vice News and The Huffington Post, but be prepared for viscerally racist, homophobic, and antisemitic examples. 

Ohio’s Department of Education has opened an investigation into the Dissident Homeschool and its reported operators, but the biggest concern is that the couple — who brand themselves as “Mr. & Mrs. Saxon” online — are not actually violating Ohio state law

By law, Ohio’s education department does not review and approve home-school curriculum. Instead, parents who home-school “agree to give students 900 hours of instruction per year, notify the superintendent every year, and give an assessment of the student’s work.”

This is an extreme example, of course. There are many responsible and effective private schools and home-schooling families. But the situation in Ohio does raise questions about oversight of alternative education options and raises worrying questions about what taxpayer dollars could be used to support should the Legislature pass some type of school voucher. 

Given what we know about the extremist forces funding much of the school privatization fight in Texas, we are right to be concerned about the potential for taxpayer-funded indoctrination out of public view. 

Cost of Arizona Voucher Program Balloons in Program’s First Year 

Arizona’s private school voucher program, passed last year, is proving to be costlier than anticipated, and Arizona taxpayers are footing the bill. 

According to a presentation by Arizona’s Joint Legislative Committee last month, the voucher program, which last year was projected to only cost $33.4 million in fiscal year 2023, now requires the state to provide a $200 million supplemental appropriation for this fiscal year in order to stay afloat. The committee stated that its “best guess” is that the program will cost $376 million in fiscal year 2024, more than $100 million more than originally projected.

Chuck Essigs, the director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, attributed the program’s ballooning expenses to the fact that it mainly attracted students who were already attending private schools or being home-schooled; these students previously cost the state nothing. Arizona is now effectively subsidizing the cost of private school tuition for thousands of wealthy Arizona families.

Newly elected Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbes called for the repeal of the school voucher program, which was signed into law by her predecessor last year. Essigs said Hobbes’ proposal to repeal the law was “dead on arrival” in the Arizona Legislature.

Last year’s law expanded the state’s voucher program, which was previously only available to students with disabilities. Passed by the Arizona Legislature in 2011, the original voucher program provided vouchers to roughly 12,000 students with disabilities at its peak. The expanded program is projected to provide $7,000 tuition vouchers to more than 52,000 students by 2024.