AUSTIN, Texas — The calls for a so-called school choice program in Texas are growing louder. Gov. Greg Abbott showed his strongest support yet last week at a Parent Empowerment Night in Corpus Christi. The State Board of Education (SBOE) recently walked back its stance after rejecting such policies. And according to a new poll from the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, 61% of Texans support school choice expansion. 

What You Need To Know

  • A new poll shows 61% of Texans supports school choice expansion

  • Gov. Abbott is advocating for ESA, an educational savings account, to give parents money to send their kids to schools outside of the public education system

  • Last year, the State Board of Education recommended lawmakers reject all attempts to divert funding from public schools

  • As of recently, the SBOE has removed that as a legislative priority 

In Corpus Christi, the governor said “now is the time to expand ESAs to every child in the state of Texas.” An ESA is an educational savings account. The idea is to give parents state money to send their kids to schools outside the state’s public education system. Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both made parental rights pillars of their reelection campaigns. Now, they’re pushing lawmakers to pass a school choice program.

In its November meeting last year, the State Board of Education recommended lawmakers reject all attempts to divert funding from public schools. But just days after Gov. Abbott’s speech calling for open school choice, the Board removed that as a legislative priority.

“Since there’s going to be a rich and robust discussion of school vouchers, at this time, the SBOE decided not to engage and make it a priority at all. So what we’ve done is simply say that we would like to take no position on the issue,” said LJ Francis, a new Republican member who represents Corpus Christi.

Francis is encouraging people to call their lawmakers to voice their support or concerns about a potential school choice program in Texas. And while he supports school choice, he also wants to put more money into the public school system.

“I think it would be prudent for us also not to only focus on choice, but to also fix what we have in our public schools to make it the best that we can,” Francis said.

Now that school vouchers are off their list of priorities, Francis said he’d like to focus on school safety and increasing teacher pay. 

Data from the University of Houston shows that 60% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats support vouchers for all Texans. Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a Democrat who represents San Marcos, doesn’t fall into this group. She does not support school choice. And, she thinks it was a mistake for the Board to remove this issue as a legislative priority.

“I think they decided to not advise the legislature but to do what they think the legislature wants,” she said. “And I think that’s unfortunate because we are elected to be the people who advise on education.”

Bell-Metereau added that, due to last week’s winter storm, the Board’s new members had not yet been through ethics training when they voted to remove this issue from the list of legislative priorities. She guessed that some might have voted differently if the circumstances had been different. Some new members supported school choice during their campaigns.

“[Ethics training is] important because it makes it so that you understand you’re not supposed to vote based on any influence that comes some kind of financial consideration,” she said. “So they’ll get the ethics training at some point in the future. And they may look back and think, ‘Oh, I might have violated my ethics, considering where I got campaign money.’ I don’t know that, but I know I am very glad that I had my ethics training before I made any decisions or cast any votes on SBOE.”

Bell-Metereau worries that if lawmakers pass a school choice program, it’d have a devastating effect on Texas schools.

“I think that public education, in general, would suffer and, and I think, ultimately be destroyed,” she said. “I think that that’s one of the issues that people don’t understand. There is a concerted effort to discredit public schools. School board meetings are being disrupted. People constantly criticize the public schools. And they’re not going out there to try to help the public schools or say they need more funding, or they need more staff or support. They’re just criticizing them. And people who have an economic interest are seeking to promote charter schools, to promote vouchers, to promote a privatizing of education.” 

Bell-Metereau hopes the state uses some of its nearly $33B budget surplus to pump more money into public education.

“We could have practically an endless amount of money if they would allocate the full percentage that they’re allowed to allocate from the Permanent School Fund,” she said. “But we’re very stingy with the billions and billions of dollars that we have for education. We don’t pay our teachers enough; their retirement is practically nonexistent. We don’t pay teacher aides. We don’t fund our education.” 

Francis and Bell-Metereau agree that public schools and their staff need more money. But experts say public schools will suffer if money is taken away for a school choice program. Now, it’s up to lawmakers to decide where the funding should go.

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