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Governor should take school program if legislature offers

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Texas lawmakers have been debating the merits of school choice, or education savings programs, for weeks. A sweeping plan passed in the Senate but has been stalled in the House because a couple dozen rural Republican lawmakers don’t think it will benefit their districts.

A revised version of the bill that a House committee is considering would offer an education savings account to about 800,000 students, a fraction of the 5.5 million originally promised, and focus the plan on students in failing schools. It would replace the loathed STAAR test — something that might compel resistant Republicans. So far, Gov. Greg Abbott has balked, even threatening to go into special session if the Legislature doesn’t pass expansive school choice. He should reconsider.

“This latest version does little to provide meaningful school choice, and legislators deserve to know that it would be vetoed if it reached my desk,” Abbott said in a written statement. He said the latest version “provides less funding for special education students than the original House version of the Senate bill and denies school choice to low-income families who desperately need expanded education options for their children.”

We understand Abbott’s goal: Expansive school choice for nearly 5 million Texas kids, including those with special needs and those in low-income areas. But the plan, with a cost that could approach $1 billion in three years, has been impossible to get through the House, despite Abbott’s considerable political push. And 800,000 is a good-sized pilot group to test Republicans’ contention that competition will be better for students and public schools alike. Abbott should take the win.

Arizona recently expanded its education- savings account program, but out of 1 million students, only about 56,000 are enrolled. Of the nearly 3 million students enrolled in public school in Florida, nearly 19,000 students had enrolled in the ESA program, which has been limited to low-income students and those with disabilities. While it might be the goal to make the program eligible to all eventually — especially if it proves its bona fides — not every family will take advantage.

It doesn’t make sense for Abbott to hold so firm on this issue, pushing the Legislature into special session and expending his political capital, when it’s likely that such a small share of those eligible will sign up. The ESA proposal is also popular among Texan residents, especially parents. One University of Texas at Tyler poll showed that 60 percent of voters supported school choice, though numbers can vary depending on the wording of the question.

Several states have recently enacted school choice legislation. The concept makes sense: When parents have more education options, schools compete to attract them.

We’ve been saying for years that Fort Worth ISD needs a revamp to better focus on academics. Kids are struggling with basic skills, and families with options are choosing to leave — enrollment has dropped for a decade.

FWISD offers a school of choice program, but adding more options for the neediest students, whether by income or the fact that their school is struggling, is worth trying.

Rural lawmakers have avoided supporting any kind of school choice, be it education savings or vouchers, because they fear the drop in state funding. Studies show that when rural students have a school choice option, their scores increase. In Florida and Arizona, rural private school enrollment doubled in recent years.

Policy is an exercise in progress, not perfection. A scaled-back school choice bill might be a perfect way to see if ESAs work for some Texas kids without spending billions of dollars or harming public schools. Abbott should take the half-loaf and commit to making it work.

San Marcos Record

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