The Texas Legislature’s special session starts Tuesday. At the top of Gov. Greg Abbott’s education agenda: school choice for special-needs students.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed to give parents of those kids financial support for private-school tuition during the regular session, but the Texas House rejected it.
Kit Lively, KERA’s education director, talked with managing editor Eric Aasen about the latest on school choice in Texas.
Q: Let’s start by defining school choice. What does it mean?
A: School choice is any policy that lets students choose a school outside their home attendance zone. That covers several options, including magnets and even home schools.
But the two that get the most attention are charter schools and voucher programs. That’s because they kick up the most controversy, and they're often confused with each other. But they don’t really have much in common.
Q: What’s the difference?
A: Charter schools are public schools regulated by the state. They get a break from some state regulations but they must comply with accountability requirements, like the state STAAR testing. They cannot charge tuition or have selective admissions.
Vouchers provide state money to help families pay private school tuition.
Q: The term “voucher-like program” was used a lot this spring during the regular session of the Texas Legislature. What does that mean?
A: Traditionally, states create tuition vouchers for parents to use at the private school of their choice. These have been around since the early ‘90s and are used in about a dozen states. But vouchers have encountered some pushback. During the regular legislative session this spring, there were two proposed variations that have become popular more recently:
- One would use state money to create education savings accounts that families could tap into for tuition at accredited private schools. But — unlike with vouchers – they could also use the money for other costs, like online courses, tutoring, textbooks and transportation.
- The Senate version of the bill also included a somewhat complicated mechanism. It would create a scholarship program that would be funded by donations from certain businesses. The businesses would get state tax credits to cover the donations, so the state would still subsidize private school tuition.
The Senate passed the private school choice bill, but it didn’t go anywhere in the House.
Q: What’s the justification for using state money for private schools?
A: Kids may live in neighborhoods where the public school isn’t that good. Advocates for school choice say they want to give all kids more options to attend better schools.
But that ideal has several assumptions:
- It assumes the family chooses a private school that is better than its assigned public school, and that’s not always the case. Private schools don’t have to participate in the program — and many won’t.
- It also assumes the state subsidy is big enough to make tuition affordable for families.
- And it assumes a student meets the private school’s entrance requirements — and that the school has programs a student needs or wants.
Q: Why is school choice such a hot-button issue?
A: One big knock on all choice programs is that they redirect motivated students — and money — away from neighborhood schools, which many people consider the backbone of public education.
Private school choice also comes under fire because the state doesn’t regulate private schools. So critics ask how taxpayers can know whether state money is paying for quality education.
One issue that pops up for kids in special education: private schools don’t have to offer special education programs, although some do.
Another issue: private schools specifically for students with special needs, including learning disabilities, are often expensive — and some are concerned families would not get enough funding to afford those private schools.
Q: School choice has a lot of supporters. Why do they think it improves the education landscape?
A: Many like that it brings a marketplace to a public service. That, they say, leads to healthy innovation and competition – which should nudge public schools to improve. And while competition does seem to be leading schools to try new programs, the jury is out on whether that’s boosting quality.
Q: What should families consider when choosing a school: public, private or something else?
A: The best school for your child depends on your child.
There’s been a lot of research on charters, magnets and vouchers, and while there are some bright spots – particularly for charter schools — no big generalizations hold true for any type of school in all places.
A huge majority of kids go to traditional public schools. But for families considering choice – visit the school and see for yourself.