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Op-Ed: I want school choice in Texas, but not like this

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A record number of states have passed universal school choice so far this year, but it seems Texas won’t be among them. Given the lack of universal school choice in multiple bills this year, I’m relieved it hasn’t passed in Texas yet.

I’ve long been a researcher and staunch supporter of universal school choice. The way to do this is by making the eligibility and funding for education savings accounts (ESAs) available for all 6.3 million school-age students. ESAs put the power of choosing kids’ schooling in parents’ hands by picking public, private, home, co-op, micro, or other types of schooling. ESAs would be funded through the current school finance system and other general funds or new tax credits as necessary.

After the Texas Legislature failed to pass a school choice bill in the regular legislative session earlier this year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott added school choice to the third and fourth special sessions. The first two special sessions focused on property tax relief and border security.

The latest $7.6 billion K-12 education-related bill supported by Gov. Abbott in the fourth special session was killed in the House.

The massive education bill died after Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, introduced an amendment to remove Texas’ first ESA program from the bill. The amendment passed with 21 Republicans joining all Democrats, essentially killing the bill as it likely is stuck until the special session ends Dec. 7.

Gov. Abbott asserts that he will keep fighting for school choice, with the possibility of calling more special sessions. But trying to pass universal school choice before the next regular session in 2025 would be a mistake.

This progress was historic as it was the first time since 2005 that a school choice bill had passed out of the House Public Education Committee and made it to the House floor. The Senate has passed school choice bills out of its chamber many times since then, including several times this year.

The latest House bill allocated $7.1 billion for additional public school funding and only $486 million for ESAs. Put another way, that’s more than $14 for public schools for every $1 for school choice, which amounts to providing an ESA of $10,700 to only 45,400 students, or just 0.7% of the 6.3 million school-age kids.

Texas is long overdue to join the growing number of states that have passed it. But there’s no path to real school choice for every student in Texas now because of politics, not from a lack of support among Texans.

A recent University of Houston survey found that 47% of Texans support school choice “for all parents, regardless of income,” and only 28% oppose it. The support exceeds opposition to it across all demographics, including rural areas.

The politics of this is a strange bedfellows of some Republicans and all Democrats spreading fear based on teacher union claims that public schools won’t survive. But doesn’t that fear concede that those schools in a monopoly government school system can’t compete and aren’t serving families well?

The best chance to pass true universal school choice, not the minimal and problematic school choice in the House’s and the Senate’s bills, is to vote out representatives who prioritize teacher unions over Texans. Then, come back to the regular session in 2025 and pass a bill that won’t let Texans continue to fall behind. This is how to help students, parents, and teachers–who would see better pay and benefits through school choice.

Gov. Abbott is leading the way. He recently endorsed 58 House Republicans who voted against Raney’s amendment and made his first endorsement of a candidate running against an incumbent who voted for the amendment.

Some argue that more Texas public school funding is the answer instead of school choice. But as Texas continues to increase funding for public education to record levels, a recent public school ranking shows that Texas public schools rank 13th worst of all 50 states. In another ranking, only 23% of 8th graders performed at or above the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) proficiency level on its nationally recognized exam.

This means that 77% of 8th graders in Texas scored below proficiency on this national exam. Clearly, the monopoly government school system is failing students in Texas. More funds will not fix this monopoly government school system problem; only more parental freedom will.

Although history was made this year, these efforts aren’t enough. Universal school choice with ESAs for every parent to choose the type of schooling for their kids must be the outcome for better student outcomes, higher teacher pay, more parental opportunities, and greater taxpayer benefits.

Gov. Abbott has been pushing the correct path of universal school choice for more than a year. But given the current makeup of the Legislature, especially in the House, he should give passage of school choice a rest for now.

Texans can only hope that the 2024 election will yield a new wave of politicians who reflect what they want: putting kids first.

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