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by Keith Bryant

This article originally appeared as the “Capitol Insight” column in the winter 2022-23 issue of TASA’s INSIGHT journal. Keith Bryant is the TASA Legislative Committee chair, superintendent of Lubbock-Cooper ISD, and Texas’ 2019 Superintendent of the Year.

Today’s concept of vouchers is touted under a number of buzz phrases that sound appealing to the average voter and the average parent: Taxpayer Savings Grants, Texas Parental Empowerment, School Choice, etc. This spin on a much more complex issue is designed to gain support for a system rooted in division, lacking accountability, and the direction of public funds to entities with little to no oversight.

Vouchers began as a tool to evade desegregation.

Many who support vouchers, and even many who do not, are unaware of the system’s segregation-based, racially divisive history. Simply put, following desegregation, many white families did not want their children educated alongside Black children. In response, some politicians introduced the concept of “school choice,” aiming to direct public funds to private “whites only” schools. These vouchers or tuition grants were designed to make private schools accessible for white families (and white families alone) while decreasing, or even draining, the funding of public schools open to students of all races.

You became an educator because you want what is best for all children, in all situations. Like me, you do not believe that any one child deserves access to more or better opportunities because of the color of their skin or any other factor. I believe that the majority of parents agree with us.

Vouchers come with no accountability.

Most private schools are private for a reason — so they are not overseen by the government the way that a public school is. They do not wish to be held to the same requirements as public schools for any number of reasons, often because they wish to base their curriculum on certain religious values or belief systems. They also have the ability to selectively enroll students who share these religious values or belief systems.

Whatever the reason a private school is established, the school desires autonomy. If the school accepts government money, taxpayer money, at what point will the public have any knowledge of or say in the allotment of the money? Public schools are governed by publicly elected school boards and are accountable to their communities for tax dollar expenditures (and much more). In the case of a voucher, the taxpayer has no voice whatsoever in how their tax dollars are spent, what is taught by the school receiving their tax dollars, or how the school receiving their tax dollars operates.

When you take a slice of pie, there’s less pie to go around.

The reality of state education funding is simple. Consider that total public school funding is represented by a pie. When a slice of that pie is removed (in the form of a voucher to a private school or homeschooling initiative), there is less pie remaining. When a slice of education funding is removed, there is less funding available for Texas public schools.

Public education is responsible for educating more than 90% of our country’s future workforce. This is a tremendous charge. We are teaching tomorrow’s doctors, plumbers, mechanics, lawyers, electricians, educators, civil servants, engineers. We are teaching tomorrow’s citizens and tomorrow’s leaders. Those who seek to disparage public education sometimes forget that the Texas workforce for the next three decades depends on the public education available to them right now. The public education available to them depends on the support of this state, its legislators, and its voters.

“Carve Out” vouchers are not the solution.

There is some behind-the-scenes talk of a voucher system that may “carve out,” or exclude, rural communities, or be offered to a certain segment of the population only (one example being students with special needs). This, however, seems like less of a compromise and more of an introduction into a widespread voucher system, and it does not best serve the students of our state. In my experience, many students who choose to leave public education do so only for a short period of time, and eventually re-enroll in their previous public schools. Often, these students return with learning deficits that the public school must then remediate. Rural students deserve quality public education. Students with special needs deserve quality public education. All students deserve quality public education.

No one is against choice.

I make many choices in my day-to-day life, and so do you. Some of our choices are significant, and they may come with prices that we have weighed before finalizing our decisions. A choice that affects your child’s education is significant. Right now, parents have a number of choices surrounding the education of their children.

  1. Parents can enroll their children in the public school district that serves their households.
  2. Parents can transfer the children to nearby public schools, as long as those schools accept transfers (most do).
  3. Parents can enroll their children in charter schools, which receive state funds.
  4. Parents can enroll their children in private schools, and pay the tuition charged by those schools.

A choice that is not available, and should not be available, is the choice for parents to enroll their children in private schools and ask the public to pay for it. If I choose to live outside of the city limits of my nearby town, I no longer have a city fire department or city police department to protect my home. I cannot ask the town’s citizens to divert their money to pay for me to share their emergency services. I made the conscious choice to live in an area not served by those departments.

Vouchers are not right for Texas.

In the Texas Declaration of Independence, early Texans cited the value of a public system of education. “Unless a People are educated and enlightened,” asserts the 1836 document, “it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self-government.” Public education was critically important 187 years ago, and it is critically important today.

The Texas public education system is successfully growing future leaders. While continuous improvement is necessary to ensure we are preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges, that improvement requires statewide support rather than a publicly funded bypass of public schools. Vouchers are not the answer. They are not conducive to a flourishing public education system, and they do not best serve Texas students. Instead, let us join together to ensure we are providing every Texas child with the public education they deserve.