Vouchers for At-Risk Students Proposed in Texas

Published May 1, 2007

On March 9, Texas state Sen. Kyle Janek (R-Houston) introduced Senate Bill 1506, which would allow the State Comptroller’s office to give students vouchers to “escape poor-performing, inadequate, or unsafe schools.”

The bill stipulates that no more than 5 percent of the students in each district may receive a voucher. Qualifying districts would include the Austin, Dallas, Edgewood, Fort Worth, Harlandale, Houston, North Forest, San Antonio, and South San Antonio independent school districts. Eligible students would have to be victims of bullying, at risk for dropping out, taking special-education courses, or have limited English proficiency.

To qualify, a student would have to live in a county with more than 750,000 people, and his or her current school district must have at least 90 percent economically disadvantaged students. Also, only current public school or first-time school attendees from low-income families would be eligible.

The receiving private schools would not be an agent of the government, the bill text continues, and schools would maintain autonomy to “allow maximum freedom” to provide for the educational needs of students “without governmental control or influence.”

“Texas schools are not serving Texas students,” Janek explained. “Are we supposed to just abandon the students who are in failing schools now while we work on long-term fixes?”

Steadfast Opposition

Janek believes the bill will “make public schools happy” because 10 percent of the per-student funding would stay with the public school the child left. But many public school lobbyists are not educating their members on the actual merits of vouchers, he said.

The Texas Federation of Teachers (TFT), representing more than 56,000 teachers and support personnel, steadfastly opposes any voucher program. In a March 3 e-mail, members were directed to contact legislators to oppose vouchers because “resources should be spent on improving educational opportunity in our public schools for all students, not serving a select few in private settings.”

The TFT alert urged members to oppose SB 1000, a school choice bill for students with autism, but did not provide a Web link or an outline of the text of the bill for interested members to read. Instead, it urged the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to pursue federal grants for autism training for public school teachers.

The Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning think tank, claims on its Web site, “fly-by-night schools would open looking only to make a profit” and “the state would be powerless to prevent unaccredited unqualified schools from taking taxpayer funds.”

Quality Measures

But according to SB 1506, each qualifying school would have to be accredited by an approved accrediting association. Additionally, each school would be required to administer a nationally norm-referenced test; voucher students would have to be tracked; and an evaluation and impact study of the program would be required–paid for by privately funded grants.

In a March 16 alert to members, Peggy Venable, Texas director of the national free-market group Americans for Prosperity, challenged education lobbyists to more adequately inform and poll their members about vouchers.

Venable says vouchers will help public schools, but believes legislators have “long been harassed by the educrat lobby to avoid meaningful discussion of vouchers.

“It is time for legislators to show some leadership and put the schoolchildren of Texas first,” Venable said, “not the self-serving education union lobby.”

Tripled Spending, More Dropouts

Texas lawmakers have “tripled per-student spending, increased teacher salaries, and decreased class sizes,” said Jamie Story, policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market, Austin-based think tank. “Those reforms have led to little, if any, improvement in test scores, and they certainly have not helped [improve] the alarmingly low graduation rates of today.

“True graduation rates in Texas are around 67 percent,” Story continued. “High school dropouts cost taxpayers money.”

A modest school choice program that increases private school enrollment by less than 5 percent could save the state “$55 million each year in increased tax revenue and decreased Medicaid and incarceration costs,” Story said.

The Texas Freedom Network did not return calls for comment.

Sound Proposal

According to the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm defending civil liberties, the program set forth in SB 1506 is “consistent with the Texas Constitution, which has never been interpreted to forbid education programs simply because some might choose a religious option,” said senior attorney Clark Neily.

“We are confident the program will survive any constitutional challenge by opponents of educational opportunity,” Neily concluded.

David Contreras, spokesman for Confia, a group of Hispanic community leaders across Texas that encourages civic involvement, said he hopes teacher organizations will consider other cities’ and states’ success with vouchers and “do the right thing … to improve education outcomes and decrease Texas’s dropout rate” instead of trying to block the program.

The bill will “actually help educators because vouchers have proven to increase a student’s academic outcomes by better engaging parents and their at-risk kids,” Contreras explained. “This bill seeks to reduce discrepancies between the quality of schooling that children in disadvantaged areas are getting and the quality of schooling in the high-income areas.

“State officials, educators, and parents should embrace this voucher bill for the dollars it will save by increasing the number of students who will stay in school and succeed–all because they are given a choice,” Contreras concluded.

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

For more information …

SB 1000 by state Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/text.aspx?LegSess=80R&Bill= SB1000

SB 1506 by state Sen. Kyle Janek (R-Houston), http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=80R&Bill=SB1506