Texas Senate Committee Examines Choice Options

Published December 1, 2006

On October 13, the Texas Senate Education Committee heard testimony addressing the mandate given by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) to evaluate the impact of successful school choice programs on students, parents, and teachers.

“The growing movement to let parents have more say in where, and how, their children are taught is healthy for public education,” said state Sen. Kyle Janek (R-Houston), a member of the education committee. “What is needed is for government to stop standing in the way of this much-needed discussion.”

The Senate committee, in preparation for the legislative session to begin January 9, invited attorneys to testify on the constitutionality of publicly funded vouchers, as well as experts to explain the pros and cons of school choice programs and charter schools.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), the education committee chair, said she will make sure her committee’s focus is on “what is truly in the best interest of the child,” by working on a plan to ensure Texas schoolchildren who are not succeeding will have better choices, either at another public school or a private one.

The committee’s report, due in December, will be subject to approval by a majority vote of the committee and will include recommended statutory or agency rulemaking changes and fiscal cost estimates.

Improving Communities

The impact of school choice is epitomized by the privately funded Horizon Program in San Antonio, said its founder, Robert Aguirre, at the hearing.

The program, currently in its eighth year, reached a peak in 2003-04, when it enrolled 2,032 students representing 15.8 percent of the Edgewood Independent School District (EISD). Any student in Edgewood ISD–the district with the lowest per-capita and household incomes in San Antonio–can use a privately funded Horizon voucher worth $3,600 to $4,700 to attend a private school or transfer to a public school.

Vouchers have been proven to revive inner-city neighborhoods, spur new housing starts, and increase the tax base for public school districts, Aguirre said. EISD’s taxable property value per pupil increased from $29,893 in 1997-98, when the Horizon program began, to $50,550 in 2003-04, he said.

Before Horizon, Aguirre said, this area of San Antonio had no new home starts since 1955. He attributed the increase to new home builders who began advertising “educational vouchers as a benefit of home purchase.” In addition, he testified, vouchers encourage districts to be more interested in parents’ opinions.

When the EISD heard the Horizon program was forming, the district hired a professional polling company that “queried its families door to door and asked how the public school system could better serve them,” Aguirre said.

Moving Forward

Ninety-nine percent of Horizon kids finish high school, compared to the EISD’s 50 percent graduation rate, Aguirre said. Also, he noted, 90 percent of Horizon kids have gone on to higher education, compared to 53 percent statewide and 35 percent in EISD.

At the hearing, state Sen. Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) disputed Aguirre’s claim that parents like vouchers, saying his constituents in Houston don’t want them. Aguirre disagreed, citing an April 2005 survey conducted by a Democratic pollster that showed 76 percent of Texas Hispanics want school choice, as do 72 percent of Houston’s Hispanics.

Gallegos did not return later requests for information concerning when he last polled his constituency about vouchers.

Testifying for Choice

Though low-income parents found it difficult to attend the hearing on a workday, said Ken Hoagland, spokesperson for Texans for School Choice, a parental advocacy group based in Austin, “more than 100 parents did attend, and with many positive statements of support for a school choice pilot program in Texas.”

During the hearing’s public testimony portion, numerous parents testified they want to choose their child’s school.

Aimee Cantu, a single mother of a 9-year-old student in the Horizon program, testified that her son’s voucher boosted her confidence as a parent, “because I can now decide what is best for my child regardless of my economic status.”

Choosing Students

School choice opponents also testified at the hearing. Kathy Miller, president of Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization of clergy and community leaders that has historically lobbied against vouchers, testified private and religious schools that accept tax dollars through “voucher schemes aren’t required to accept all students who wish to attend.

“If a child lives in a neighborhood and walks through the doors of the public school,” said Miller, “the public school will educate that child. [It] doesn’t ask if they have a B average, and they don’t ask if their parents are motivated. It doesn’t ask if they have transportation to and from, and it doesn’t ask if they can bring their lunch. They teach them.”

Janek asked Miller whether magnet schools–public schools with selective admissions requirements based on academic or performing arts abilities–“bother” her.

Because magnets are part of the public accountability system and “aren’t taking money out of the public education pot,” Miller said it’s OK if magnet schools are selective while accepting public funds.

Preferring Public Schools

Houston lawyer Kaye DeWalt, formerly an attorney for the Houston Independent School District, urged the committee to consider the school choices already in place in the public school system.

Without identifying specific legal repercussions, DeWalt cautioned the committee that any plan for publicly funded vouchers should not include sectarian schools. DeWalt exercised school choice, she said, when her own children were enrolled in magnet schools.

“I am a living witness that [magnet] schools work and they do provide school choice,” DeWalt said.

Charter schools, which enroll 90,000 students in 340 schools statewide, with 11 more to open in 2007, are becoming more popular, DeWalt said, because parents have a desire to “exercise what they perceive as choice.” Smaller class sizes and the knowledge that some children just function better in different environments also make charters popular in Texas, DeWalt concluded.

Sure of Constitutionality

According to testimony presented by Institute for Justice staff attorney David Roland, “nothing in the federal constitution or the Texas constitution should prevent the Texas Legislature from providing state-funded scholarships” to a private or public school.

“There is no constitutional barrier to religious schools’ participation in a school choice program,” said Roland, so long as the legislation “neither encourages or discourages religion, but merely permits parents to choose a religious school for their children from among other public and private options.

“If the Texas Legislature gives low-income parents the opportunity to choose religious schools for their children,” Roland continued, the constitution would not be violated as long as parents are given choices “from among a range of public schools and other private schools–choices that wealthy parents already enjoy.”

Connie Sadowski ([email protected]) directs the Education Options Resource Center at the Austin CEO Foundation.

For more information …

“Poll Showing Diminished Voucher Support Questioned,” by Hilary Oswald, School Reform News, October 2006, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=19780

“The Constitutionality of School Choice Under the U.S. and Texas Constitutions,” testimony before the Texas Senate Education Committee by Dave Roland of the Institute for Justice, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research databases. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #20151.

Find the interim report, “Texas Senate Committee on Education Report to the 80th Legislature, December 2006” at http://www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/Senate/commit/c530/c530.InterimReport79.pdf. The report answers six charges given by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, including charge six to evaluate the impact of successful school choice programs.