Investment in Public Schools, Not Unaccountable Vouchers, Delivers Real Choice for All

School vouchers will be prominent in state lawmakers’ debates at the Capitol this spring. In their inauguration addresses, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick both stated “school choice” is a priority and the Governor’s State of the State reiterated that point.

There are a lot of different names for school vouchers, making the issue confusing to taxpayers and parents. Traditional school vouchers, education savings accounts, business tax credits for education, special education vouchers, special education or “bracketed” vouchers aimed at specific populations of students are all terms used to describe voucher programs. While the names may change, the policy and outcomes are the same. School vouchers divert public funds to private schools and for-profit vendors.

Vouchers Drain Public School Dollars

For nearly two decades, advocates for “school choice” and vouchers have pressed state leaders to use taxpayer dollars to fund private education. 

The last failed voucher bill in Texas in 2021 would have targeted only 22,000 students but would have diverted an estimated $340 million per year from our Texas public schools. The program was anticipated to double in size over a few years. The loss of that funding for public education would have meant cutting much-needed salary and retirement increases for teachers and staff. Support programs, accelerated learning, extracurricular activities, and the expansion of pre-kindergarten would also be on the chopping block.

Proponents of school vouchers say tax dollars should follow the student, not fund the system. Education funding in Texas is already tied to the student, because the Texas funding formulas are based on students’ attendance rates. A public education system delivers accountability and transparency for how these taxpayer dollars are spent, a safeguard not found in any voucher program or the private schools and for-profit programs they fund. 

For each student leaving a Texas public school, a campus would lose about $10,000 in state and local funding. Yet, the fixed costs of running a school do not change when that student departs. So, the equivalent of 4 to 5 students leaving for a private virtual school under a voucher program could deeply impact teacher salaries, class sizes, and student enrichment programming like sports, music, art, and electives on a given campus. These impacts would be especially acute in non-urban and rural communities, where smaller student bodies leave districts with less room in their budgets to protect their campuses from the potential financial impact of the departure of even a small handful of students. 

Vouchers subsidize wealthy families 

The fact is vouchers do not cover the cost of most private education, leaving parents to cover the difference. The national average tuition for private school is more than $12,000 per year. While voucher proposals in Texas have varied in size, none have come close to that amount.

The people who benefit most from school vouchers are students already attending private schools. In states like Arizona, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, anywhere from 75% to 89% of the students using vouchers already attended a private school.

Vouchers hurt students

Private schools are not obligated to accept or serve all students. For example, children with physical, mental, or learning disabilities may not have access to the services they need in a private school setting. Public schools, on the other hand, are federally required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to eligible students ages 3-21. Furthermore, IDEA provides legal protections for these students and their parents in cases where public schools fail to provide adequate services. Children in private schools are not entitled to these protections.

A wide body of research takes issue with voucher advocates’ claims of improved student outcomes. According to recent research, states with established voucher programs (e.g., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio) show that students enrolled in voucher programs have reduced scores on math state assessments. Indiana University researcher Christopher Lubienski found that accounting for demographics, public schools perform better than private schools. Additionally, a University of Virginia study found that private school enrollment provided no additional benefits to low-income children in urban settings by simply controlling for sociodemographic characteristics.

School choice and parents’ rights already exist

With Texas public schools educating 90% of the K-12 student population in the state, today’s public schools and public charter schools deliver wide-ranging choice to students through speciality programs, including magnet programs, early college high schools, and transfers within and across districts.

And, parents in Texas are happy to choose their public schools. According to the 2022 Charles Butt Foundation Poll, 80% of public-school parents say they would keep their oldest child in their current school even if other options were available. 

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Raise Your Hand Texas. Raise Your Hand Texas is a non-partisan nonprofit organization supporting public policy solutions that invest in Texas’ 5.4 million public school students. The group envisions a world-class public school system that fuels a brighter public future for all Texans. Its statewide advocacy team works in communities throughout the state to raise the voices of parents, teachers, community leaders, business owners, and students who care about the future of public education. Its advocacy work and the voices of Texans, alongside current research, informs the policy recommendations it makes to Texas lawmakers.