I know you’ve heard a lot about school choice, parent choice, actually, and I want to talk about it today, because it’s really important for us and for others.
I have served on the board of the Texas Private School Association since 2008. As the name indicates, the TPSA is the organization that advocates with the Legislature and government officials for private schools in the State of Texas. When I first joined in 2008, no one knew who we were. Private schools weren’t really on the legislative map; no one really thought about them in Austin, or considered them when legislating.
This was a good thing and a bad thing. All too often, it was good to fly under the radar of state government. After all, one of the primary tenets of the TPSA was to advocate for the independence of private schools in the state, the ability to act in accordance with their unique missions, free from government interaction. The downside came when issues came before private schools actually needing government help, such as when the Texas Education Agency decided they were no longer going to accredit private schools. We needed help then, and it was really hard to get it, because no one knew us.
Flash forward 15 years. They all know us now, for better or for worse. Private schools have come to the forefront in Texas lately, as families have come to our schools from other states and even from within our own in the wake of COVID. This phenomenon in Texas, and in private schools in other states around the country, have ignited a recent wave of school choice initiatives to give parents the ability to choose where their children will attend school, and how they will be educated.
In my 15-year tenure with TPSA, and beyond, private school organizations and others have worked to have school choice initiatives passed in Texas. These initiatives have been a part of the TPSA’s long-time legislative agenda because it is a general belief in private schooling that taxpaying parents in a state should have the right to choose what kind of education they have for their children. So, over the years, various initiatives, from tax credit plans to education savings accounts (more on that in a minute) have been presented to the Texas Legislature. Several have passed the Senate over the years, but to date, none have passed the House.
That may change this year. Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, as well as other legislators, have responded to the nationwide wave of new school choice legislation in states such as Arizona, Iowa, Florida, and Arkansas (33 states and Washington D.C. have some school choice initiative) by making it a legislative priority for Texas. Although a school choice initiative failed to pass in the regular legislative session, the governor has called a special session this month, and has said if it does not pass in this session, he will call another until it does. The possibility of a school choice initiative passing in Texas is greater than at any other time in the history of our state. The Senate filed, considered, and passed its school choice bill (SB1) last week, and the House is preparing its school choice bill for consideration as I write. As always, the debate will be much more intense in that house.
I want to talk about school choice from the rare perspective of a head of school who has been working on this issue for 15 years, not only because I believe it will ultimately benefit the families of this school, but because I believe it’s an educational equity issue. God describes Himself as a God of equity, mercy, and justice in His Word, and as His people, we need to care about the things He does.
First, I want to make it clear that the position of TPSA, and my own passionate belief, is that public schools are a public good worthy of our support. Our societal common good requires they flourish. This church, this school, and I personally support several efforts, including major regional efforts initiated by this church, that directly support and positively impact public schools. But, while public schools are absolutely necessary, there is nothing in our constitution or laws requiring that they be the only mechanism for educating children that be publicly supported. There is nothing other than lots of tradition that supports a unitary school system, supported by tax dollars, meaning “take it or leave it.” That’s not even true within the public system in Texas, where charter and magnet schools are also state-supported. This is why school choice initiatives outside the public school system have legally and successfully existed since 1991, when Wisconsin created the first program.
There are many types of school choice initiatives, which (in this case) are simply a way to use tax dollars or tax credits for K-12 educational uses other than public schools. You’ve heard them universally called “vouchers,” which is a little like calling all cars a “Volkswagen.” A voucher is a type of school choice initiative, and people either use that term because they don’t understand the difference, or, more often, in a pejorative way. One type of school choice initiative, the type currently being considered in the Legislature, is an education savings account (ESA). An ESA is a type of account for which families apply, or opt into, funded by tax dollars, that allow families to use the dollars for certain qualified educational expenses (kind of like a preloaded debit card or account). They can use these dollars for things like tuition and fees at accredited private schools; books, instructional supplies and uniforms; tutoring; academic tests; educational therapy; fee-for-service transportation; and certain extracurricular activities.
Depending on the school choice initiatives, preference may be given to low-income families, families of kids with disabilities, or others who may have less access to private education or educational choice than others. For example, SB 1, filed and passed in the Senate, provides for $500 million to fund the ESA program from what is called the general revenue fund, a separate fund from that used to fund public schools, that comes from sales taxes and severance taxes. This means that no dollars used to fund ESAs under this bill, or any likely to be passed by the Legislature, will take away dollars used to fund public schooling.
Since the program will be new, and with the dollars initially invested, only 62,500 students will be allocated funding under the ESA program. A state-certified educational assistance organization will process applications from families of students seeking assistance through the ESA program. Due to limited funding, a priority funding structure has been established, with most of the priority given low-income families who qualify for free and reduced lunch, even though some funding has been prioritized for families with higher income. This more modest program is very common for programs initially approved by state legislatures around the country. However, it’s important to start somewhere, and these programs tend to be expanded over time, as the success of these initiatives around the country cause more and more families to want to participate.
These programs work. They are not new, and there is 25 to 30 years of history across the country to support them. There are over a dozen peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the effectiveness of these programs in the states where they have been implemented, which is why a majority of states have them. To cite just a few examples, reading and math proficiency increased for students using school choice programs in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Washington D.C., and virtually every other state they have been implemented. In 1998, before its school choice program was implemented, Florida’s low-income students ranked 33 in the nation academically. With a robust school choice program, they are now ranked first.
School choice in Texas poses no threat to public schools. There are 100,000 seats available in private schools in Texas. In 2022, there were 5.1 million children enrolled in the public school system in this state. If every available seat in private schools went to an ESA student (which is impossible, given the number of spaces available under the current proposed legislation, and wouldn’t happen anyway, with the vast number of other families applying to private schools), it would represent 1.96 percent of the total public-school population in Texas. Even in those states with the most widespread school choice programs, participants represent 3-5 percent of the school-aged population- hardly an existential threat.
Furthermore, in states with the oldest and largest educational choice policies, the inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding in public schooling has actually increased, and the average performance of district schools is as good or better than when the choice programs were enacted. Again, there is plenty of research out there, and it’s not new. I understand that change can is hard, and is unsettling to people. Every change initiative we’ve done in our school in the 20 years I’ve been here that’s brought about innovation has been hard. But, that’s not a reason to try something that has already been proven effective elsewhere.
Finally, school choice is consistent with our constitutional rights. Thirty years of U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, in cases like Zelman v. Ohio, and Arizona v. Winn, Espinoza v. Montana, and Carson v. Makin, have held that these initiatives do not violate the separation of church and state under the First Amendment. Application of these initiatives in state after state over those same decades shows that these dollars are legally deemed to follow the student, not the school, so they are not allowed as a mechanism for states to unduly intervene in private schools.
Christian education is not the right choice for every family. But, as Christian families involved in Christian schooling, we should want every family who desires an outstanding Christian education to have access to it. Even now, this program would be a game-changer for schools like our sister school, Promise Academy. Promise serves a community in North Tyler traditionally underserved by Christian schooling. This program would help some of our students now, and more as the programs grow over time, but it would help many of theirs, and we should support it based on this value alone.
This can very well be God’s provision for many families. God is a god of equity, and equity calls for it. Parents should have the right to choose how their children are educated, and if there’s a funding mechanism that is proven over decades in other states to work and not to harm (and in many cases, help) our public schools, we should for sure try it here. If you agree, please pray about contacting your representatives and letting them know you support their efforts to bring school choice to Texas.