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Challenging Gov. Abbott’s school voucher plans

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Dear Editor: I’ve been following the Texas school voucher story very closely and appreciate your front page piece about it in today’s (Feb. 24) San Marcos Daily Record. However, as enlightening as the article was, and despite everything else I’ve read about it, I’m still scratching my head, wondering just what problem Governor Greg Abbott’s proposed education savings accounts, or school vouchers, or whatever the latest buzz words attached to them, are intended to fix.

Let’s take a quick look at how they work. As your article states, “Under Senate Bill 176—authored by state Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston—participating families would receive the average amounts of money it costs Texas public schools to educate each of their children, which is about $10,000 per year.” Families who participate would be able to take their children out of public schools and enroll them in a range of nonpublic educational services—such as private schools, tutors, or online schooling.

All well and good, right? Well, not so fast. As critics of the proposal have pointed out, the program could easily take away money from Texas’s already underfunded public education system. While the Governor states that Texas schools will remain fully funded, one must ask, what exactly does that mean? For 2023, average, national per-pupil spending is $14,840. In Texas, the amount is $9,606 per pupil. That’s a gap of $5,234 per pupil—or more than 35 percent.

And there’s this: in Texas, funding for public schools is based on ADA—average daily attendance. If kids are siphoned off into private schools, the funding formula must be adjusted for fewer kids in seats— despite the fact that the vast majority of students, particularly in rural areas, have little, if any, access to alternate schools.

Here we are, talking about pulling out $10,000 here, $10,000 dollars there, and $10,000 someplace else. It may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but given that Texas low level school funding ranks in the bottom 25 percent of all states, this is funding that our schools can simply not afford to lose. Fully funded? You be the judge.

Let’s get real! Texas has 5.9 million public school students. If every family decided to take advantage of Gov. Abbott’s proposed voucher program, the cost would be $59 billion dollars, essentially defunding the state’s entire public school system, and transferring the spending to the devices of what, under the Middleton scheme, would be largely unregulated suppliers with no obligation to report test results or how they’re spending taxpayer money. Now there’s an open invitation to the scammers and the fly-by-nights! Unless, of course, every public school would, overnight, be declared a private school. But, still, as Gov. Abbott states, “This is really about freedom,” who am I to complain?

So a little exploration of the Governor’s use of the term “freedom” might be in order. And as we do that, we’ll move the focus to Hays County.

Hays County has a cumulative 40,203 public school students enrolled in schools throughout the San Marcos, Hays, Dripping Springs, and Wimberley school districts. The school voucher proposal would cost $402,030,000 if parents were to latch onto an ESA or a voucher for each of their children.

So far, so good, right? Well, maybe not. Hays County also has 1,491 students enrolled in private schools within the County. That means less than four percent of Hays County’s school age children go to non-public schools. And depending on which of those private schools you’re looking at, annual tuition, depending on grade, can easily reach $10,000 and go up to almost $20,000—not including registration fees, application fees, book and learning materials costs and, where applicable, uniform and transportation costs.

At best, the voucher proposal would help less than 1,500 Hays County students. This is where the “Freedom” part comes in. Who decides which children get into those schools? Can any parents go up to the door of a private school, wave a voucher, and insist that their children be admitted? Sure, they’re “free” to do that, but does the freedom to have the door to a classroom closed on a child, because those classrooms are already full, really count as “freedom?”

And what about those private schools? Does anybody expect that they’re going to clear the decks for the voucher students who cannot currently afford the costs of a private education by terminating all current enrollments and starting fresh? And do the Abbott/Middleton proposals require that non-public schools accept a certain share of the new-voucher applicants? And what would be the acceptance standard? After all, unlike public schools, private schools are not required to accept every applicant.

Don’t get me wrong— I’m not being critical of the private schools; rather, I’m questioning the assumptions— such as they may be—of the proponents of the Abbott/Middleton plans.

Where does that take us? First of all, while Governor Abbott says the proposed payment does nothing to mitigate the demonstrated underfunding of Texas schools. Parents who can and do send their children to private schools would receive a $10,000 offset and likely continue their students in their current schools, at less of a strain on their current household budgets. To be fair, we can expect a small number of seats in those schools to attract new students each year to fill places left open by graduates and children whose families relocate. But unless the private schools are about to embark on vast expansion programs—and I’m not aware of any— there will still be only about 1,500 seats at those schools. If there ain’t no room, there aint’ no room. And all the vouchers in the world ain’t gonna change that. So, the vast majority of Hays County students, of course—more than 96 percent—will continue to have the freedom to attend their current schools. But I guess that’s better than no freedom at all.

Back to you, Governor.

Jon Leonard

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666