Gov. Greg Abbott is advocating for a vouchers program in the name of parental choice, but every Texan should question this because of the potential negative impact vouchers have on students and the state’s public school system.
School vouchers are relatively simple – they are taxpayer-funded government subsidies that parents use to pay private school tuition although tuition and transportation at many private schools exceeds the voucher. Families must pay the difference.
When a family uses a voucher, public school districts lose funding. Education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships are less traditional approaches to vouchers, but they still take away money from public schools.
With less money, districts are forced to cut popular programs such as dual language education, STEM initiatives and vocational training. Such cuts narrow curricular and programmatic offerings and disproportionately impact low-income communities that may not be able to afford private school tuition and transportation costs even with a voucher.
Private schools are also not held to the same standard of accountability as public schools. And they are not legally required to provide fair access and quality services to students with disabilities. These simple facts are concerning, but it gets worse.
School vouchers have been studied for decades in cities such as Milwaukee, New York and Toledo. Most studies find little or no statistical impact on achievement for students receiving vouchers. In fact, four recent studies in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia found that on average, students attending private schools with vouchers did less well on tests relative to their similar peers in public schools.
In Arizona, a vouchers program was sold as a policy to help low-income families. In practice, vouchers were primarily used in high-performing districts by wealthy parents. Arizona House Minority Leader Eric Meyer said the state’s voucher program “essentially gives the wealthy a discount at a private school.” He added that the lack of money to cover transportation and additional tuition costs makes it difficult for families with fewer resources to use the vouchers program.
Texans should keep this in mind.
Texans should also keep in mind that our state already ranks among the worst for public school funding and has been cited by the U.S. Department of Education for illegally cutting special education funding. When vouchers are implemented, more money will come out of the public education system.
Consider Cleveland ISD in Liberty County outside of Houston, which enrolls approximately 9,000 students in 11 schools. The district’s total budget was about $130 million for the 2021-22 school year, with nearly $100 million going to cover staff salaries, busing and transportation costs, and facilities maintenance and operations.
If some families currently attending Cleveland ISD were to use a voucher to attend private schools, the most likely outcome is that their children would experience a lower-quality education. Meanwhile, the loss of 10 or 20 students would force Cleveland ISD to cut one to two staff members, such as a teacher or school nurse.
Schools in rural Texas like those in Cleveland ISD are not just places where children go to school. They also serve as community hubs, host important events and gatherings, and provide access to health care providers and counseling given the state’s long-term failure to ensure rural communities have access to hospitals and mental health services.
Policymakers should not disrupt the public education system given the state’s constitutional obligation to “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Taking money out of the public school system amid a global pandemic that disrupted learning and triggered a massive teacher shortage is even more illogical. Let’s also not forget the significant school safety concerns and security infrastructure problems brought to light by the recent school shooting in Uvalde.
Vouchers in Texas are a terrible idea. We should be investing in our public schools and focused on ensuring every school is well resourced, staffed with high-quality teachers, and offering innovative educational programs that prepare the next generation of Texans for postsecondary success. We should not have a program that does the opposite.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.
David S. Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, San Antonio Express News, Abilene Reporter News, and the Waco Tribune Herald.