In the 2012 Texas Republican primary, 85 percent of voters supported a school choice proposition to have state education dollars follow individual children to any school their parent chooses. Of the nearly 1.4 million voters considering the proposition, nearly 1.2 million of them approved it, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
School choice has long been part of the Texas Republican party platform, but this overwhelming show of support on May 28 helps indicate to lawmakers that voters want some action, said Brooke Terry, grassroots coordinator for Texans for Voluntary Taxpayer Savings.
“It was important for us to be able to see what parents in Texas think,” she said. “Now we can start to educate lawmakers in Texas on how to incorporate that [into legislation].”
School System Funding Woes
In June 2011 the Texas legislature went into a special session to confront a $4 billion budget gap largely related to education. It faces another budget gap in the coming 2013 legislative session. In the meantime, a coalition of school districts has sued the state for more money, saying it doesn’t provide them enough to properly educate students. That and several other related lawsuits are set to be heard in October.
Texas spends an average of approximately $8,000 per student. The state Supreme Court has previously suggested the state ought to reorient its school funding mechanism, and if it hears the case it may direct the legislature to do so.
Terry says tough budget realities combined with clear voter support could provide momentum for the legislature to consider the well-documented savings of school choice measures such as Taxpayer Savings Grants.
The proposition voters approved read, “The state should fund education by allowing dollars to follow the child instead of the bureaucracy, through a program which allows parents the freedom to choose their child’s school, public or private, while also saving significant taxpayer dollars.”
Terry says TSGs fit that description. In 2011, TSG legislation would have given parents of public-school students up to 60 percent of the state cost to educate a student, or $5,143, to send their child to private school. A Heartland Institute study concluded the program would save the state $2 billion over its first two years. (Heartland publishes School Reform News.)
Legislative Changes Coming
Texas House Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) lost to a primary challenger. Senate Education Committee Chairman Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) will retire in January 2013. The leadership shift will mean an opportunity for school choice advocates, Terry said.
“What’s going to be key is the Tea Party group,” Terry said. “That’s a new part to this entire equation we haven’t had on past votes on vouchers.”
Because the Tea Party concentrates on fiscal conservatism, it’s likely they won’t miss the potential offered by legislation that can save $2 billion in two years and broadly expand families’ education options, she said.
Image by Benjamin Geminel.