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Gov. Greg Abbott has made “school choice” one of his highest priorities this year, highlighting it in his State of the State address and throwing his weight behind education savings accounts, which would allow parents to opt out of their local school districts and receive state money to school their children directly.
“That will give all parents the ability to choose the best education option for their child,” he said during a parental rights event in Corpus Christi in January, where he announced his support for such a program. “The bottom line is this: This is really about freedom.”
Public education advocates and rural lawmakers have long opposed the voucher programs most often associated with "school choice,” saying they siphon funds away from public schools. But supporters of education savings accounts, which have spread across the country in the last decade, see them as their best way to harness conservative parents’ discontent with public schools and expand “school choice” in the state.
Here’s what you need to know about education savings accounts.
What is an education savings account?
Education savings accounts are essentially taxpayer-supported bank accounts for parents who remove their children from the public education system. Those parents get state money up front to pay for their educational expenses, like private school tuition, online schooling or private tutors. In most cases, the state manages these accounts.
[Texas Legislature gears up to tackle long-standing and fresh issues in public education. Here’s what you need to know.]
There are several education savings account proposals under consideration by the Texas Legislature this session, but Senate Bill 8 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, has been designated as a priority bill. SB 8 would give participants up to $8,000 per student each year to be used on private school tuition, tutors, uniforms and other approved educational expenses. The program would be open to virtually every K-12 student and would not accept those already in private schools.
Creighton’s proposal, like most education savings account programs in other states, does not require private schools or education services vendors to report test results or how they’re spending taxpayers’ money.
Another education savings accounts proposal, Senate Bill 176 by Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, would allow the money that parents get to roll over on a year-to-year basis and could be used to help families pay for higher education. The funds for the program could come from both taxpayer money and donations.
Middleton’s bill has not yet been voted out of the Senate Committee on Education.
Supporters of education savings accounts, such as Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, say the state should let parents choose what type of education is best for their children. Opponents say it would take money away from an already underfunded public education system.
Over the last couple of years, education savings accounts have gained popularity among those looking to expand “school choice” across the country.
Why is it called a “school choice” program?
The term “school choice” embodies a host of schooling options and is typically used when talking about alternatives to public education, like charter schools.
The modern “school choice” movement can trace its origins to the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which mandated the desegregation of public schools. Some white parents did not want their children to attend desegregated schools, and in response, some states like Virginia devised voucher programs, which give families taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools.
Education savings accounts started about a decade ago, but they accomplish goals similar to vouchers, said Joshua Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University.
“The plan that Abbott is proposing really just resembles a typical voucher program, which is essentially taxpayer-funded tuition,” Cowen said. “The difference between an [education savings account] and a voucher program is essentially all these other expenses could be tacked on to it or used in place of it.”
Where else do they exist?
Last year, taxpayers in about 30 states provided about $5 billion to send kids to private schools, according to Scott Jensen, senior strategist for the American Federation for Children, an organization geared toward expanding voucher-like programs across the country.
Ten states have enacted education savings account programs, and about 20 others, including Texas, are in the legislative process to get a similar program approved.
While most of the existing programs are limited in scope, Arizona expanded its education savings accounts last year, and they are now open to almost every child. The only requirements are that the child must be at least 5 years old and that parents must show proof that they live in the state.
Arizona created its education savings account program in 2011. The decision came after the state’s supreme court ruled that traditional vouchers were unconstitutional because they could be used to pay religious schools, essentially amounting to a transfer of state funds to religious institutions.
But education savings accounts were able to get around this by giving the state funds directly to parents and letting them use the money for a myriad of educational expenses, not just religious school tuition.
Is “school choice” a new idea in Texas?
The state Senate passed an education savings account bill similar to Middleton’s in 2017, but it did not have the same support that Abbott has put behind the issue this year. The measure did not pass at the House Committee on Public Education.
But other “school choice” options have long existed in the state.
Texas has had free charter schools since 1996, and the state has some of the most lenient home-school laws in the country. Parents can also send their child to a magnet school, a public school with a specialized curriculum that draws students from across districts.
In addition, many school districts have a process for students to transfer out of the schools in their area and into a different district.
Why are education savings accounts back?
For some lawmakers, this session provides a unique opportunity to get voucher-like legislation across the finish line.
They’ve pitched education savings accounts specifically to parents who opposed COVID-19 restrictions and want other schooling options after the pandemic brought test scores down to historic lows.
They also believe they have enough support from parents displeased with how race and history are taught in the classroom.
Some conservatives claim that “critical race theory” — a college-level discourse that examines the impact of systemic racism and that isn’t taught in Texas public schools — is rampant across the state’s school districts and makes white children feel bad about their race.
Parents and lawmakers have also pushed to ban “explicit” books from public schools, leading Texas to ban more books than any other state and target titles centering on race, racism, abortion and LGBTQ representation and issues.
What can we expect at the Texas Legislature?
The Senate, headed by Patrick, easily passed the 2017 education savings account bill, but the measure never made it out of the House. The House Committee on Public Education had members who were staunchly against any “school choice” legislation, who clashed with state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, then-chair of the committee and who was historically against “school choice” policies.
This session, it’s unclear if another political fight may be brewing between the two chambers.
At first glance, the leaders of both public education committees seem to be at odds. The Senate Committee on Education chair, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, is a supporter of school choice legislation, while the new chair of the House Committee on Public Education, state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, voted for an anti-voucher amendment to the House budget last session. The House committee has several other members that voted for that same anti-voucher amendment.
But the Texas Public Policy Foundation — one of the biggest advocacy groups for “school choice” — praised Buckley’s appointment shortly after it was announced. And in an interview with the TV station KXAN, House Speaker Dade Phelan said his education committee assignments don’t mean the discussion over sending taxpayer dollars to private schools is dead.
“The appointment of that committee was not reflective of that. There’s members who are interested in having those discussions,” he said. “It’s going to come down to whether or not it has the votes in the Texas House, and [in] the past [it] has not.”
Buckley did not address “school choice” in a statement on his appointment, only saying that he looks "forward to working with members of the committee and my colleagues in the Texas House to craft policy to provide the best opportunities for Texas teachers, students and their families."
Lawmakers who support voucher-like programs will also have to convince rural lawmakers to their side. Rural communities and lawmakers usually oppose “school choice” legislation because there aren’t many private schools in their region. They have been traditionally defensive of their schools, which serve as important community hubs and are usually among the biggest employers in their regions.
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter 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.