As the 2023 Texas Legislature convenes, education advocacy organization Raise Your Hand Texas is urging the public to become educated on the topic of vouchers.

RootEd co-founder Genevieve Sugalski is one local San Antonio parent who said she is fearful the whole legislative session will be overtaken by voucher bills, which she called “a huge detriment to our public education system.”

“We want to make sure the funding goes into our neighborhood schools. Statistically, vouchers take away money from our neighborhood schools,” Sugalski said. “With Texas being a rural state, that would be awful in rural areas. [In] Northeast San Antonio, our schools are just now having a bit of a comeback from COVID.”

Effects of vouchers

Vouchers are typically introduced as a way to provide additional school choice options for students in the U.S., although voucher critics believe Texas already offers a variety of options for families through the public school system, and that any sort of voucher would divert public funds away from public schools.

“The public education system here in Texas educates about 90% of our students, and we do a really good job at it,” said Bob Popinski, senior director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas. “We offer a lot of school choice programs in the education system, not only through the charter system, which offers education to nearly 400,000 kids, but we have P-TECH programs, early college programs and magnet programs.”

Sugalski echoed the fact that magnet schools specialize in fine arts, culinary schools, plus career and tech education.

“You name it, we have it,” she said. “My son in high school has the world at his fingertips. He can choose any path currently. If [vouchers are] what parents are choosing, I urge them to do research.”

With these school choice options comes accountability, Popinski said, as students are required to take the state’s assessment and follow state curriculum guidelines. Additionally, public school districts are held accountable under the state’s A-F ratings as well as its financial integrity rating system.

“We think you can have choice in our state and still hold school districts accountable for student achievement,” Popinski said. “We don’t believe vouchers can do that.”

There are currently 14 states in the U.S. with voucher programs in place, which include traditional models, business tax credits, education savings accounts, and now in the age of virtual education, there are virtual vouchers. In Texas specifically, the newest proposals are referring to bracketed voucher systems.

“A lot of these work through education savings accounts where you put it into an account for the parent, and they can take that money to any private institution or private vendor that they like, taking the money out of our public school system,” Popinski said.

The push for vouchers is not new, but there has been a stronger national push in recent years; the most recent state to adopt them is Arizona, which approved a universal voucher program in 2022.

“What you’re seeing with the program in Arizona is 80% of the kids who are enrolling in the voucher program already attended private school, which says a lot about what voucher programs can do to your state and public education system,” Popinski said.

That is also true in New Hampshire, where 89% of the students enrolled in the voucher program already attended a private school, along with Wisconsin at 75%.

“That’s what we’re pushing back against. We don’t want this just to be for students who attend private schools, we want funding for the common good for all of our 5.4 million students,” Popinski said.

Additionally, the cost of private school tuition in Texas averages around $11,000, and can go upwards of $20,000 at certain institutions — thousands of dollars more than a voucher of $4,000-$6,000 would pay for.

“We spent decades developing systems of curriculum and assessments, and to have a third parallel system along with charter schools — where no one is held accountable for those types of provisions — is troubling,” Popinski said.

Other legislative priorities

Instead of focusing on voucher systems, Sugalski said legislators should be focused on security, bringing more teachers into the field, and retaining educators.

“I don’t think any state needs a voucher system. The vouchers were created as a scheme to privatize our education system. We don’t need that in Texas,” Sugalski said. “We have amazing schools that are doing great.”

Sugalski said vouchers would negatively impact local school districts by creating a shortage of funds, a teacher shortage and a paraprofessional shortage. She is encouraging parents, especially parents who have children in local public schools, to do research about vouchers.

“I think if they started doing research, they’d see a majority of time [and] voucher money is going to affluent parents who already have kids in private school,” Sugalski said. “I’d love for parents to see how it will directly affect them.”

Popinski agreed, noting the state should continue to provide public education the basic resources it needs as the first and foremost options.

“We are in the bottom 10 when it comes to per-pupil spending, and looking at the teacher workforce we’re $7,500 behind the national average,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do on just the basic public education needs of our 5.4 million students, almost 400,000 teachers, and 250,000 additional staff members.”

Sugalski said public schools in Texas are doing amazing work to educate the state’s children.

“If you get into the nitty-gritty of what the school down the street is doing, they are fabulous,” she said. “It’s across the board in all 17 districts we have here, but it takes someone going into a school and checking it out. Instead of leaving or thinking the grass is greener, take a tour.”

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