Gov. Greg Abbott called for “every child” in Texas to have access to a voucher-like program called education savings accounts.
Some believe the political landscape is ripe for a renewed fight for vouchers or similar efforts. However, they have historically faced a tough road in Texas, with opposition by both Democrats and rural Republicans who don’t want to funnel state money away from public schools.
At a Tuesday night event, Abbott said he laid the ground work for them during the pandemic by providing microgrants to students with disabilites. The state awarded $1,500 grants to more than 65,000 students, according to the Texas Education Agency.
“It’s been so successful,” Abbott said of the program. “But that program shouldn’t be limited.”
Here’s what to know about education savings accounts, school vouchers and the school choice movement in Texas.
What are the school voucher or choice initiatives that might get play in Texas?
State lawmakers are proposing a variety of ways to give education funding – intended for public schools – to students, rather than school systems.
Three main forms of school choice initiatives have been used in other states, including education savings accounts, scholarship tax credits and vouchers, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Education savings accounts
Education savings accounts, or ESAs, establish dedicated savings accounts fueled by public funds that families can tap into to pay for education expenses.
Arizona established such a system in 2011 with Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Families can use the money for more than just tuition, including reading books, textbooks, educational games and flashcards.
Students are eligible for the Arizona program if they meet certain criteria, such as being the child of an active-duty military parent, being a K-12 student with special needs or attending a D- or F-rated school.
Currently, 10 states offer ESAs.
Scholarship tax credits
Scholarship tax credits permit taxpayers – either individuals or businesses – to dedicate part of their taxes toward public and private school scholarships for students.
Florida lawmakers established a similar program more than two decades ago that directs the scholarship money toward children from low-income families. The average amount the scholarship fund awarded was less than $7,000 for a student’s enrollment in an eligible private school.
Vouchers are state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private schools. States sometimes limit these programs to certain areas of the state or districts.
For instance, Ohio offers the Cleveland Scholarship Program, which gives students in the region the opportunity to attend private schools by contributing up to $5,500 for students in elementary and middle school and $7,500 for those in high school. Parents are responsible for the difference in tuition if it exceeds the state’s contribution.
Some states impose regional or income restrictions on these programs, while others make them available only to students who require special education services.
How many states already offer school voucher-like programs?
Seventy-six education choice programs are offered across 32 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to school choice advocacy group EdChoice.
Many surrounding states offer some kind of private school choice program, including Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Why do public school advocates oppose vouchers?
Educators and adovates say funneling money away from public schools takes away resources from campuses that already struggle to meet students needs and often leave behind the most struggling.
As it stands, Texas’ public education funding formula essentially awards money to school districts based on how many students show up for school each day. Fewer students means less state funding to schools.
They also note that private schools don’t have accountability. Public schools are graded on how well students do on STAAR and on how much progress they make. Failing schools tend to be more prominent in areas with higher levels of poverty, where students need more with access to food, stable housing and medical care.
Public school advocates say vouchers would amount to subsidizing wealthy families’ tuition as those in low income areas don’t have as many private school options or the money to make up differences to attend such campuses.
Why do Texas leaders support school choice?
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has cited “dropout factories” in urban areas as a reason why parents should be able to change schools for their kids.
In September, he participated in a virtual discussion with pastors from across the state and cited the escalating culture wars over what’s taught in schools as a reson for expanded choices.
“After COVID and after [critical race theory] and after pornographic books in libraries, parents deserve choices,” Patrick said then.
At an America First summit in July, Sen. Ted Cruz cited the importance of education in combating challenges later in life.
“If kids get a good education, we know that their chances of going down the road of crime, the chances of being trapped in poverty, the chances of health care challenges and of addiction, all of them plummet,” he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott has also been a vocal supporter of school choice initiatives and recently advocated for a voucher program that would allow families to use public funds to attend private schools.
“Empowering parents means giving them the choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student,” Abbott said at a San Antonio rally in May.
What has happened to Texas proposals in the past?
In 2017, Abbott pledged similar support, saying he would sign any school choice legislation that crossed his desk.
Prominent Texas Republicans have signaled renewed interest in passing voucher programs in the next legislative session, which starts in January.
But school voucher proposals and similar initiatives that direct public dollars toward private school education have faced a tough path through the Texas Legislature.
The Senate, led by Patrick, has traditionally supported voucher programs. But the Texas House has been the biggest obstacle, with rural Republicans and urban Democrats voting together to oppose the plans. Last session, 115 members from both parties voted in support of a bill amendment that would have prohibited the use of public funds for school choice programs.
Rural Republicans tend to oppose the initiatives because students in their areas often lack alternatives to public schools.
Cruz said during the America First summit that the reason Texas has not embraced the concept as aggressively as some other red states is that school districts are often the largest employer in rural parts of Texas, and those superintendents have been able to influence Republican officeholders.
Public education advocates also argue that vouchers funnel money away from public schools, which serve more than 5 million children.
Conservative groups have often pushed voucher initiatives, including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which launched a parental empowerment tour and touted expanded school choice as a top priority in 2023.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.