Podcast Transcript: The School Voucher Debate: Texas Rural Communities

Morgan Smith: You’re listening to the Raise Your Hand Texas Intersect Ed Podcast where the stories of public education policy and practice meet. I’m your host Morgan Smith, and today, we’re taking on a topic that has become a marquee fight of the 88th Legislature, private school vouchers. 

On one side, we have our state’s two most powerful elected officials, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who say every parent should get the freedom to decide how to use taxpayer money in educating their children. On the other, we have every public education advocacy group in the state, including Raise Your Hand Texas, who say that vouchers will do nothing but harm students, teachers, and communities.

To help us dive in today we have superintendent Randy Burks of the Hamlin Independent School District, and Bob Popinski, the senior director of policy at Raise Your Hand Texas. Dr. Burks and Bob Popinski, thank you both so much for being here. So first, let’s define what we’re talking about. There are a lot of different terms we might have heard to describe vouchers, school choice, education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships. It gets even more confusing because school choice is also used to describe the array of options already available to Texas public school students, like charter schools and magnet programs.

Right now, a plan known as an education savings account is what’s gaining the most traction at the legislature. The basic gist is that the state gives parents a certain amount of money, $8,000 in Senate Bill 8, the main bill that we’re watching, to use for our private school tuition or other educational expenses. On its face, maybe this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Bob, is this proposal, the education savings account, is this a voucher?

Bob Popinski:

Don’t be fooled. No matter what they call them, whether it’s an education savings account or a tax credit scholarship, or a virtual voucher, they’re all the same thing. Vouchers are a scheme that’s used to divert public funds to private schools and vendors, and the keywords there are private schools and vendors, with no accountability, such as public schools have. And then they will continue to undermine traditional schools, including charter schools, in the future because those funds are taken from public schools to invest in our teachers, to invest in our students, and they’re investing them into a program that has no accountability whatsoever. So it doesn’t matter what you call them – education savings accounts, special education vouchers. They are bad public policy for the state of Texas.

Morgan: Dr. Burks, your district is about 40 miles northwest of Abilene in Jones County, Texas. You’ve been a superintendent there for six years, though, you’ve worked in public education for more than four decades. Your district is rural and small, with just over 400 students and those students are primarily from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Give us a little sense for your community. What are you most proud of there? What are you struggling with?

Randy Burks: Well, Hamlin was what might commonly be referred to in some circles of school finances as a CTD district –“circling the drain district,” declining enrollment and loss of some industry that was here previously, and so the district has seen better days definitely. And the city itself is probably typical of a lot of rural Texas, crumbling infrastructure and substandard housing is pretty common here. And, you know, I grew up in a background that’s not too different from a lot of our kiddos. And so I really felt like I had something to offer the school and the community because I had a background in school finance.

So we moved to a collegiate model early on in my time here, because we just felt like that, so many of our kiddos were struggling with finding a pathway that would be better than the pathway that they could see. They couldn’t really envision a better life than what their parents had. So, we’re a P-TECH school, early college high school, we have Montessori Elementary School, and we have college and career pathways available for our kiddos. And so we try lots of innovative things, and we fail fast and dust ourselves off when we do and get up and try again, because we think that’s what’s best for our kids and to help improve our school and, in essence, lift the community up as well as we move forward.

Morgan: Now, it’s no accident that we’re featuring a superintendent from rural Texas today, because that is where Governor Abbott has decided to wage his fight for vouchers, too. Since the start of the legislative session, he’s taken the pro-voucher message to the road, stopping at private schools in three to four towns a month around the state. Let’s take a quick listen here to the Governor speaking at a private school in Tyler in March. 

Governor Abbott (audio from an “Education Freedom” March 2023 event in Tyler, TX): I cannot stand alone in getting this across the finish line. I need you standing with me, every step of the way, to make sure we empower parents to educate our kids, better than any state in America.

Dr. Burks, we just heard the emphasis on parental freedom as an argument for vouchers, and I want to get your thoughts on what that means for rural schools in a second. But Bob, first, can you give us an idea why we’re seeing this strategy of targeting rural communities from the Governor? And as we’re seeing the conversation evolve at the legislature, we’re hearing more discussion about vouchers and special education students. What’s the strategy here?

Bob: I’ve always run up to a problem in rural school districts, and rural communities are the center of their communities. And, so what happens is, in the past, you’ve had Republicans and Democrats alike in the House stopping vouchers. There’s an amendment offered, usually during the state budget debate that says, “Our public dollars cannot go towards private schools or vouchers.” And that’s typically what’s known as the Representative Herrero Amendment. And that was a few weeks ago here in the Texas House and passed 87 to 51.

And it’s an important moment for the House because it sends a signal that we believe in our public schools. They keep saying that overwhelmingly, Texans believe in a voucher program. But I think what’s actually happening out there is that Texans really don’t know what a voucher program is. When you actually say, “Hey, if a private school or a private vendor actually takes public dollars, are they held accountable?”. And in a recent Charles Butt Foundation poll put out at the beginning of the year, it says, “If private schools and private vendors actually take public dollars, what kind of accountability would you like to see?”

And overwhelmingly, 88% said, “Yes, we’d love to see how they’re actually spending our public dollars.” “Yes,” 84% said, “We want to see that they provide special education services to all students and not just a select group of students, and that you have to accept students with all special education needs, you have to follow the state curriculum guidelines, you have to administer state standardized tests, and you have to kind of accept all students, even if they have a discipline problem.”

And so overwhelmingly, when you look at Texans, whether they’re from rural Texas or urban and suburban Texas, they want a voucher program that’s held accountable underneath all of those standards. I think at that point, what you have is a public school system. And so I think we should take some time to invest in our public schools. Right now, public schools are funded $4,000 below the national average when it comes to per-student funding. We’re $7,500 below the national average when it comes to teacher salary.

And I think we need to kind of focus on that before we start spending a billion dollars on a voucher program that doesn’t accept all students, and it even says within the bill, that parents have to be notified that private schools and vendors don’t have to provide the same special education services, under state and federal law as public schools do. There’s a lot to unwrap in here. And I think as more Texans actually understand the linkage of what’s going on in this voucher program, the more they’re pushing back against it.

Morgan: And so we’ve seen that rural communities have been out of this firewall against vouchers in the past and this session, it seems even this main bill, SB8 that we’re looking at, it includes a carve-out for rural schools as possibly a way of getting around this opposition that we’ve seen. And rural school districts like yours, Dr. Burks, they make up about 40% of Texas districts, they educate about 180,000 students in the state.

Under SB 8, they would actually get paid if they lose any students to a voucher program. So currently, that amount is $10,000. So all in all, school districts under 20,000 students, the state would be paying $18,000 a year for five years for students to take part in this program. That’s $8,000 that goes to the family and $10,000 to the school district. What would a program like this mean in your district, Dr. Burks?

Randy: I would say first of all, things are really on a high note financially in Texas right now. And because I’ve done this for a long time, we know that there are lean years and there are prosperous years. And this is a time that the legislature has a lot of money at its disposal. So this sounds really good. And if you don’t understand like Bob was saying, you may not understand all the moving parts here. But for them to commit $18,000, and the price tag that goes with that, at some point that’s going to go away, it pulls money from what’s available to us.

And so I really am opposed to it. Now, we’re rural, and it’s going to be difficult for our folks to find a private school to attend. They would have to drive to Abilene. We, in fact, bus children from Abilene to our school, because of some of the things we’re doing. We have such a high number of disadvantaged folks, and that micro-schools, and homeschooling and different things that pop up would probably pull some of our students for that. Those students are going to come back to us.

If you’ve ever tried to teach a child to read or teach algebra, I believe that there are going to be some hardships created for parents, especially in rural communities where there’s already chronic economic hardship and long work hours for parents, and many of them work two jobs or they’re single parents. It would be very difficult for our folks to provide a good education for our kids, and they’ll come back to us and then the consequences will be back on our shoulders to make sure that we catch them up and provide the high level of education that we already do. I think that the $10,000, it’s a carrot for votes. And we’ll just call that what it is. 

Bob: Morgan, if I can jump in there, too.

Morgan: Sure.

Bob: The bill is actually saying what those who are in favor of vouchers are kind of denying. They’re saying “No, we’re not going to defund our public schools. The money’s going to be there for our kids.” But what they’re actually saying in the bill, is that, “For those right now, with 20,000 students or less, we’re going to provide $10,000 and hold harmless money for you.” And it started off as a two-year period, and on the Senate floor, they actually extended that to a five-year period. And so they’re actually saying, “Yes, we understand that it’s going to actually hurt our public schools, so we’re going to hold you harmless for that five years, but we’re only going to do it if you’re under 20,000 students.”

For a majority of districts that have students above 20,000, they’re not getting that hold harmless. So they’re going to see an impact right away. Every time a student leaves a school district, and goes either to a private school or even a charter school that school district loses about on average $10,000. It could be a little bit higher in some districts, a little bit lower in others. But that $10,000, leaving the district means that they’re going to have a hard time funding all of their staff, all of the teachers they need, to make sure that they can staff their classrooms properly. All of the folks driving the school buses and the cafeteria workers and all of the aides that help out. There’s 375,000 teachers, there’s another 200,000 or so staff around the state, and all of that will be impacted once you start diverting funds from public education.

Morgan: You bring up a good point, Governor Abbott himself said in his State of the State address this year that even with a voucher program, public schools would remain fully funded. And then you have this provision in the bill that seems to conflict with that, because you’re holding harmless the $10,000. I think that’s a really good point to bring up. I want to shift back again to the special education services. Dr. Burks, we have a number of bills out there that are focused on vouchers for special education students. Can you talk a little bit about what services for special education are provided in your district?

Randy: Well, we’re required by law to provide services for all students that reside in our attendance zone. So we have a variety of needs – with learning disabilities, emotional issue – and we have to provide services for those kiddos. And we’re happy to do so, but it is expensive to do so. I don’t see that private schools are going to take on this responsibility. Now I have been in places where we have actually contracted with a private school for a particular student whose parent had a situation where they moved to our district but did not want to change for their student because of the emotional strain of that.

There are isolated cases where that could happen. But, for the most part, we provide services for all of our students, whether that’s residential placement, which costs us dearly, or to provide speech services, or the whole gamut of things that we provide for our kiddos. It’s our responsibility, that’s what public schools do. We take all the children who show up at our door, do our very best to provide a great education for them, whether they have special needs, or whether they’re gifted and talented, or anywhere in between.

Morgan: And you talk about you’re required by law to provide these services. Bob, how would a special education voucher program be conducted to federal guidelines for special education students?

Bob: Yeah, and every voucher bill moving through the process, there’s provisions in there that clearly state, “You have to notify the parents that private schools and private vendors are not subject to the same federal or state laws regarding special education services in the same manner as public schools.” That means they don’t have to provide the same services, they don’t have to actually accept or admit a special education student under any circumstances. And so they’re spelling this out in the bill saying that private schools and vendors don’t have to offer the same type of special education services. And so when we move forward, we just have to keep that in mind, and make sure we’re doing what’s best for all children in the state of Texas.

Morgan: I want to talk about oversight for a second, we alluded to this earlier. But when taxpayer dollars start going to education expenses outside of the public school system, it’s really hard to design a system that keeps track of how that money is spent. Bob, what accountability measures are attached to the voucher proposals at the legislature right now?

Bob: Very little. Right now how these voucher proposals are set up, and we’ll look at Senate Bill 8, as one of them. It is a $10,000 hold harmless for school districts that have students using the voucher, but it’s an $8,000 voucher. But by the time the education organization that oversees it takes a 5% cut, and the Comptroller takes a 3% cut to oversee it, that amount is diminished. And the oversight that the Comptroller has is just an audit for compliance. They’re not looking at student achievement or student progress. They don’t have to compare them to the STAAR assessment or the A through F accountability rating system for our campuses and school districts.

They don’t have to have the same type of certification standards that our teachers do in our school districts. They don’t have to follow the same financial integrity rating system that our school districts do. And they’re not overseen by an elected body like all of our local school boards do. And so there really is no oversight for this, except for some compliance audits, and a provision that says you have to offer some sort of nationally norm-referenced test and be accredited by one of our state’s private school accreditation services. But besides that, they don’t have to fall under the same guidelines as our public schools by a long stretch.

Morgan: And this brings us to the equity part of this issue, the beauty and the challenge of public schools is that they’re required to take students from all backgrounds, regardless of religion, the color of their skin, whether they can or can’t speak English, and students whose parents can’t afford to feed them breakfast or lunch. All of those students are welcomed at a public school. Dr. Burks, talk a little bit about public school versus private school when it comes to equity.

Randy: Well, if they’re school age, we serve them regardless of their academic ability, disability, or socioeconomic status. In fact, we take early head start down to three-year-olds, we even have two-year-olds. We feel like we have to intervene as soon as we can, because they’re going to come to our school at some point. Private schools just aren’t held to that standard. They don’t take all of them, and they’re not required to make accommodations. They have an acceptance process –  and it is a stringent process.

And we hear stories all the time about students who maybe go to a private school, and then they get excluded or sent back to their public school because they had too many tardies, or because they didn’t follow the rules. It becomes a screening process for the best and the brightest, who will leave [our public schools]. And, it will not do any favors to public education, whether it’s in rural or in urban areas.

Bob, when you describe the standards that the private schools would be held to, a national norm-referenced test and some, good financial bookkeeping, it sounds like the way public schools were when I went to school, where there was a lot of local control, and school districts still provided a very good education for kiddos without all of those strings attached to the dollars.

And I also have a concern that we’re still talking about a static amount of money and some window of time here. And when the dollar amount that goes to private schools, we know that over a very short period of time, the tuition at those private schools is going to increase at least to the amount of the voucher. And so I would say to you that over time, that amount is going to increase because it’s still not going to cover the amount and this is just going to be the camel’s nose under the tent, and it’s going to continue to balloon, if you will.

Morgan: So right now we’re in the crunch time of the legislative session. The Senate has passed out a voucher bill, SB 8. Meanwhile, the House has passed its budget with a provision that would prevent public money from being spent on private schools, which seemingly would mean that SB 8 or any other voucher proposal wouldn’t have the votes to make it out of the House. Bob, what does that mean for vouchers this session? Is it stead?

Bob: Even after multiple bills have been heard this session, both in the Senate Education Committee and the House Public Education Committee, there continues to be more bills heard on Education Savings Accounts, specifically for special education students. And so as more bills move through the process than ever before with the six weeks left, there’s a lot of vehicles out there for Education savings accounts, for vouchers, for virtual vouchers to be heard and advanced through the legislative process. So it’s incredibly important when the House debated the Herrero Amendment during the state budget process, that says they are not willing to accept a voucher program this legislative session. With that being said, as I mentioned, there’s a lot of time left, and a lot of legislative vehicles that can move this type of legislation forward. So you have to remain vigilant. 

Morgan: Well, we’re going to have to end here today. Dr. Randy Burks and Bob Popinski, thank you again for being with us. And thanks to you, our audience, for listening. 

Today’s episode was written by me, Mogan Smith. Our sound engineer is Brian Diggs. And our executive producer is Anne Lasseigne Tiedt. 

To stay informed on vouchers and other critical education issues as the session progresses, you can sign up online for Raise Your Hand Texas Across the Lawn weekly newsletter, at www.raiseyourhandtexas.org\get-involved. 

To receive text alerts that will allow you to join Raise Your Hand in taking action at key moments this legislative session, text RAISEMYHAND, all one word, to 40649. 

Thank you for standing up for our Texas public school students.


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