Texas parents’ demand for school choice is “overwhelming” and continues to grow even as their options expand, says Matthew Barnes.
As executive director of the Houston-based Families Empowered, Barnes spends his days helping thousands of families find the best school fit for their children among private, charter, and district options.
“It’s really a function of every parent wanting to have the best opportunity for their child,” he said, though Families Empowered surveys indicate many parents don’t know about their options.
But many more families want options than have them. The waiting list for Texas charter schools tops 101,000 students, says David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, up from approximately 56,000 two years ago.
Texas offers no private school choice, but Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced in August he would work with state legislators to introduce voucher legislation.
That same month the state’s Senate Education Committee held a hearing to discuss Taxpayer Savings Grants—a voucher that would give families up to 60 percent of state per-pupil education funding, or $5,400 a year, toward sending their children to the school of their choice.
Why Parents Want Choice
A recent Families Empowered survey found a variety of reasons families were not satisfied with their current school and wanted another. The most common was poor academic quality, at 37.2 percent. Others cited problems with school personnel (14.8 percent) and security, safety or discipline problems (10.4 percent). Nearly 18 percent did not identify a specific reason for wanting to leave their current school.
“They know there’s something better,” Barnes noted.
Families Empowered helps families navigate school options to help kids stay college-bound, using three main strategies, Barnes said: finding a good school fit, helping parents learn to advocate for their education needs, and teaching families to support education at home.
“Demand continues to far outpace supply,” Dunn said.
Private Vouchers Available
Private organizations provide K-12 scholarships in Texas, such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Fort Worth. They too have seen significant school choice demand. In its first round of awards, CSF-FW granted approximately 500 private school scholarships to low-income families in 1999, though many more than 9,000 applied, said executive director Patty Myers. The organization maintains a waiting list of more than 1,000 families for a potential round of need-based scholarships.
CSF-FW continues to offer merit scholarships, awarding 100 in 2011.
“We ask the children to work toward exemplary behavior,” Meyers said. Recipients must commit to finishing homework, attending class on time, and maintaining high grades. Meyer says she has been amazed at scholarship students’ quality. Although CSF-FW is small, she said, “somehow [parents] seem to find us.”
The group has awarded more than $4 million to more than 3,400 kids since 1993.
“If parents learn of their options, there will be a tidal wave of parents pursuing the best option for their child,” Barnes said.
Image by Worcester Academy.