In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill crossed political boundaries to enact legislation at the federal level. Although they had political differences, there was a sense that they were working for the common good and each knew they had to work together to accomplish anything meaningful. Speaker O’Neill is famous for saying that “all politics is local.” That used to be a safe bet. Elected leaders wanted to represent their constituents as best as they could – not some constituents, but all of them.
Unfortunately, in recent years it feels like “all politics are national,” and that local candidates have to kowtow to national interests rather than to their local communities, which is the case with the issue of school vouchers. Vouchers, which are unpopular in both political parties when called “vouchers,” will be a hot topic for the Texas Legislature this session. As a result, they won’t be called vouchers in legislation. They will be called “Taxpayer Savings grants,” “hope scholarships,” or some other flowery words to help mask that they are indeed vouchers. Be wary of wordsmithing.
Many elected leaders will be encouraged to vote against their own principles and the best interests of their local communities because of outside influence (money and politics) unless all of us engage with them locally.
Here are just a few of the countless reasons I have grave concerns about vouchers passing in Texas:
1 – Vouchers are expensive. We simply can’t afford to fund three types of school systems (traditional ISDs, charter schools, and private schools funded by vouchers) that follow three different sets of rules. The state has already chosen to spend billions of taxpayer dollars each year on charter schools. That money comes directly out of neighborhood public schools. Funding a third system will no doubt significantly weaken local community schools and existing charters. Texas is already near the bottom in the country in public school funding. The last thing our state needs to do is provide “welfare checks” to wealthy families to attend selective private schools, and that is exactly what has occurred in many states that have enacted vouchers. In Arizona, 75% of voucher applicants are children who were already attending private school.
2 – School choice is not parent choice. Too often we see charter schools that do not serve all children. In those cases, it is the school that does the choosing, not the parents. There are some charters that are mission-driven and strive to serve all children, and they should be commended; but many have become profit factories that serve only children who are easy and cheap to educate. They are underrepresented by children in special education, those experiencing poverty, and children with behavioral and emotional needs. By law, they are required to be open to all children, but in reality, some charters put up all kinds of barriers to keep “those kids” from enrolling. That does not serve the public good and it even hurts the reputation of mission-driven charters.
3 – Vouchers erode our democracy. Local community schools have elected leaders who are required to live in the district, be accountable to all taxpayers, provide full transparency and have accountability. If you don’t like their decisions, you can vote them out of office. If you want to encourage or discourage them from making a certain decision, you can speak at a board meeting. You can vote for or against tax increases and bond issues. You can even talk to them at church or at the grocery store or ball game. In other words, you have a lot of influence on how your taxes are spent. That is called democracy. Private schools are far removed from the electorate. Vouchers will tax everyone, but the average Texan will have no say on how their tax dollars are spent, what curriculum is used, whether certified teachers are hired, or what programs are offered. Private schools don’t have to have a grievance policy, follow the Open Meetings Act, or show transparency about anything. It is ironic to me that while we are talking about giving parents more rights, we are actually inhibiting their rights by funding schools that can pick and choose whom to serve and how they serve without any input from the public. And for those of us who do not have school-aged children anymore, we will be taxed but have no representation in these schools. Taxation without representation runs decidedly counter to American values.
Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, says “The general diffusion of knowledge, being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” The American dream cannot be outsourced to private schools and profiteers. If our state and nation are going to continue to thrive, we must not abandon our public schools and our democracy.
The stakes are just too high, the cost to Texans too great, and our children’s future too important.
During this legislative session, it is critical for all TASA members to be engaged locally. Knowing your state representatives and senators closely, and ensuring that they fully understand how legislation impacts your school district and your community is one of the most important duties of a school leader. Thank you for the leadership you are providing in your community to serve and protect this critical pillar of our democracy, public education.
-TASA Executive Director Kevin Brown, Ed.D.
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