Texas parent Brianna Ford has a private school picked for her children. What she and her husband lack is money. If they had just one child, maybe they could manage the expense. But they have three, which prices them out of the market.
“It is not feasible,” says Ford, who lives with her family in Beaumont, Texas, east of Houston. “When you have multiple kids, how do you put one kid in and not the others?”
The problem is not new for Ford, who attended a private elementary school as a child until her parents no longer could afford tuition. They withdrew her not by choice, but by necessity.
Thousands of Texas families never make it even that far. They live paycheck to paycheck, so their only option is their assigned public school. This is fine, if it works. Many children thrive in public schools. Others fall behind or get too far ahead. Or they grind against the system in other ways. Then they are trapped.
Families with resources have options. They can move to a different neighborhood with public schools that better fit their needs – regardless of real estate prices – or they can stay where they are and hire tutors, shop for private schools, or try homeschooling.
“Cash is king,” Ford says. “And when you do not have it, you cannot do as much.”
Texas parent Addison McKee felt the pinch when her oldest stepson reached high school. She saw him floundering but did not know how to respond. “I followed the instructions,” she says. “I followed the administration, and I followed the school because as a person who did not really know any better, I just trusted the public school system.”
McKee, who lives in Rio Hondo near Brownsville, wants to play a more active role with her younger children. State lawmakers can help.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session, which opened on Oct. 9, 2023, to consider something called “education savings accounts” (ESAs). When opting for an ESA, participating families receive a designated amount of funds from the state to offset K-12 costs. Educational options previously out of reach become more affordable and accessible.
“If this legislation passes, and we were able to get aid, that would be a huge financial assistance for us,” Ford says. “It would be an absolute dream for our family.”
McKee and her husband agree. “We have money to survive, but schooling is not cheap,” she says.
Texas could provide relief without raising taxes. The state already allocates nearly $10,000 per pupil in public schools annually, roughly equivalent to private school tuition in Texas. The money is there. The real fight is about power.
Texas currently funds school districts, not children. Families can opt out of their assigned classrooms if they have large enough bank accounts, but they cannot control district spending. The decision makers are teachers’ unions, who wield influence, not parents.
ESAs shift the balance of power. Qualifying families can pay for approved expenses at their own discretion. They do not need permission from local administrators. This is how things work in 11 states that already operate ESAs. Most other states have educational choice programs – each putting families in greater control of their child’s education.
Texas has many models to follow. The Texas State Teachers Assocation, the state’s largest teachers’ union, hates all of them. Association president Ovidia Molina calls every ESA proposal an “attack against public schools” because families might take their money and go elsewhere.
Specifically, she worries about funds going to support private and sometimes home schools. But parents, not the government, make decisions in states with ESA programs. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, has successfully defended ESAs in state after state, most recently in North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
These programs are not just constitutional, they are empowering. But a level playing field makes Molina uncomfortable. “We will be ready to continue our fight to protect public education,” she says.
Ford and McKee want to protect children instead. They have nothing against public schools. They just want choice in Texas.