SAN ANTONIO – It used to be that a child either went to a free public school dictated by their address or parents paid up for a private education. But these days, the list of options is as long as spring break feels short.
“It becomes pretty overwhelming,” said Anna Koalenz.
Koalenz realized she had a lot to learn about school choice when she and her husband began looking at schools outside their local district for their 7-year-old son, Beau.
“He needed a place that was very encouraging and had a lot of flexibility but offered some structure,” said Koalenz.
“I had no idea how many options there were,” she said.
Some of those options include:
- Traditional public schools
- Private schools
- Public charter schools
- In-district charter schools
- Magnet schools
- Hybrid schools (often these are a mix of homeschooling, online schooling, and classroom learning)
“When my son was about 3 years old, we found out that he was on the autism spectrum, and we realized that trying to find the right school for him was going to be a lot harder than we expected,” said Inga Cotton, founder and executive director of San Antonio Charter Moms.
What began as a blog 10 years ago detailing Cotton’s experience has become a nonprofit that helps families navigate school choice and connects families with options.
“School choice is the concept that families know their children the best, and they can look at a range of different schools and education settings and find what’s the right fit for them,” Cotton said.
Texas has public school choice options
In 1995, state lawmakers approved the creation of public charter schools in Texas.
They don’t have to follow some of the same state laws and regulations as traditional public schools, which allows for more innovation and flexibility.
For example, some charter schools can be focused on a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Others may emphasize dual language learning.
The schools are open enrollment, meaning a student’s address does not dictate whether they can attend. Students are selected by lottery each year.
State law governs the financial and academic requirements of charter schools.
Texas charter schools are not for profit. They receive funding from the state but not from local property taxes like traditional public schools.
“The state has a formula, and it’s super complicated, but basically what they try to do is kind of average out how much are the traditional public schools getting from the local property taxes,” said Cotton. “The state averages that out and then comes up with a formula to kind of send that money to the charter schools from the state, not from the local property owners, to try to balance it out.”
Debate over private school choice in Texas has lasted years
Using public dollars to pay for private education is hardly a new debate at the state capitol.
In the past, the idea has been referred to as a school voucher program.
Lawmakers are faced with new proposals for private school choice this legislative session.
Senate Bill 176 would create the Texas Parental Empowerment Program.
“It would create an education savings account program that would allow parents who opt their child out of public schools to get that money to then spend on private school tuition or online schooling or even private tutors,” said Pooja Salhotra, the East Texas reporter for The Texas Tribune who is covering school choice during the legislative session.
“It amounts to about $10,000 a year,” Salhotra added.
House Bill 619 would give tax credits to people who donate to private school scholarship funds.
Legislation has also been filed proposing a reimbursement program for private tuition, laid out in House Bill 557.
In past legislative sessions, representatives from rural areas have been the biggest opposition to using state money to fund private education.
Public schools are often key parts of their communities.
“So even though broadly it’s thought of as a more conservative issue -- an issue that conservatives are in favor of, school vouchers -- that’s not necessarily the case in rural parts of Texas,” said Salhotra.
But things have changed in recent years.
A pandemic fueled by frustrations among some parents over masking and vaccines added to a cultural shift in the wake of COVID-19.
And it’s not just a Texas thing.
“This kind of falls under this larger umbrella of issues that is really kind of gaining steam nationwide,” Salhotra said. “There is a lot of momentum around this whole parental rights bucket of issues, which includes everything from what school library books should be available to children to how schools should talk about race.”
We’ll have to watch and see what happens with that legislation in Austin.
Timing is everything
The Koalenz family eventually found the perfect school for their son, Beau. But they learned that understanding when schools hold their enrollment is critical.
“When you’re applying for school choice in schools, even private schools, that happens about a whole semester ahead of schedule and sometimes further,” said Anna Koalenz.
Cotton says fall is usually the best time to start your research.
“Sometimes a family will try to make a decision the summer before their child would start a different school,” Cotton said. “And probably by then, a lot of schools have already held enrollment, and they’ve already held their lotteries.”
“Explore the options because sometimes you’ll find something that just feels like this magical fit,” said Koalenz.