State Board of Education eases stance on vouchers after previously rejecting “school choice” policies

A student walks down the hallway at Cactus Elementary School in Cactus in 2020. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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The State Board of Education has walked back its previous decision to ask lawmakers to reject vouchers or anything that reduces “funding to public schools.” It appears that the board may stay neutral on “school choice” policies.

The 15-member board had already voted on its legislative priorities in late November, which included rejecting school vouchers. But some board members like Keven Ellis and Tom Maynard believed it was wise for the board not to get involved in the voucher fight this spring. Members voted 8-5 Thursday night to preliminarily strike the language from its priorities and stamped the decision Friday.

“There’s going to be a very rich and robust debate over this in the Legislature and because of that I’ve felt it was appropriate to reconsider this item and let that rich and robust debate happen at the Legislature,” said Ellis, the board’s chair who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The move from the board comes as Abbott on Tuesday night voiced his most explicit support yet for a school choice policy, saying that Texas needs to create an education savings account program.

This was also the first meeting of the board with its slate of new, more conservative members since the November election. All four of the new conservative members campaigned on taking “critical race theory” out of schools even though no Texas school teaches such a course. The board has been recently criticized of moving further to the right in recent months after delaying the social studies curriculum standards review.

Michael Barba, the K-12 education policy director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said in a statement that policymakers should be focusing on expanding educational opportunities.

“The SBOE today formally recognized the need to empower parents, and for that we applaud them,” Barba said.

“School choice” is a term used to describe programs that give parents state money to send their kids to schools outside of the state’s public education system.

Some Republicans in the Legislature believe this may be the year they expand school choice as some parents have been displeased with public schools over pandemic response mandates and about how race and history are taught in the classroom.

Texas already practices school choice, as parents can choose to send their children to free charter schools or transfer schools within or outside of their district.

In the Legislature this session, Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, filed Senate Bill 176, which could become the most expansive piece of school choice legislation in the state if it were to pass. It would create an education savings account program that would allow parents to use state funds to pay for their children’s private school, online schooling or private tutors.

Democratic members of the State Board of Education questioned why the priorities were brought up again when they had already voted in November ahead of the session that they would take a stance for public education and against vouchers.

“I’m just wondering what happened between now in November, besides pressure from the governor, to change perspectives on wanting to make sure our public schools are supported because let’s be clear: This would take from both our charters and our ISDs,” Democratic board member Aicha Davis said.

Imelda Mejia, director of communications at the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning watchdog group often involved in public education issues, said the board has “lost its way.”

“Refusing to come out against those trying to use tax dollars to subsidize private and religious schools is a stunning betrayal of more than 5 million public school students in Texas,” Mejia said.

Also during Thursday’s meeting, the board discussed looking into conducting background checks on people seeking to become registered school board trainers after the Texas Education Agency greenlighted a convicted felon to provide trainings to school board members. Registered providers are allowed to give training on the Texas Education Code, team-building, board development and identifying maltreatment of children.

Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.