Despite charges from opponents who labeled the proposal a voucher plan that undermines public education, trustees of the Houston Independent School District voted 5-4 on May 21 to approve a plan that allows failing students in low-performing schools to attend a district-approved private school at the District’s expense. Trustees promoted the plan as being in the best interest of the children, since there could be no guarantee the currently failing schools would be performing satisfactorily a year from now.
“Some people have chosen to label this a voucher. I’m going to choose to label it ‘Truth in Education,'” Trustee Larry Marshall told The Houston Chronicle. “We will never be able to solve all the problems of public education,” he added.
The 800,000 students in low-performing public schools in Texas already are allowed to request a transfer to another public school with the aid of a public education grant, but very few transfers have been approved. An attempt last year to allow children to transfer instead to private schools failed by a single vote in the Texas House of Representatives. (See “Plan Proposed for Students in Failing Texas Schools,” School Reform News, May 1997, and “Texas Public Schools Won’t Accept Choice Students,” School Reform News, September 1997.)
Houston Schools Superintendent Rod Paige dismisses the voucher criticism, pointing out that the money does not go to the parent or the child but is paid through a contract to the private school. Since the district already contracts with private schools for special education, alternative education, and relief from overcrowding, Paige argues that the transfer program is simply an expansion of the district’s existing contractual services. Private, for-profit schools provide services for students whose needs the district cannot adequately meet.
“This is not ideology, this is education,” Paige told Chronicle reporter Melanie Markley the day before the vote, explaining that the district will monitor the performance of participating private schools and will terminate the contract if student test scores aren’t satisfactory.
To be eligible for inclusion in the plan, private schools would have to be nonreligious and also willing to accept $3,575 per student per year as full tuition. In addition, the schools would have to meet state accreditation standards, abide by state laws governing public schools, and accept all students, regardless of conduct and academic performance.
Students are eligible for the plan if they failed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in math and reading and are currently attending an academically low-performing school in the district. Low-performing schools are classified as such either by the district or by the Texas Education Agency. Although there are only three such schools in Houston now, more may be rated low-performing next year as the district tightens its accountability standards.
Such conditions and considerations appeared lost on Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who protested that it was Paige’s responsibility “to oversee children’s education, not give them to someone else to educate.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].