Podcast Transcript: Special Session: School Finance & Vouchers

MORGAN SMITH: Welcome to the Raise Your Hand Texas Intersect Ed Podcast, where the stories of public education policy and practice meet. 

Today, we’re talking about the special legislative session that began Oct. 9, and the intense financial pressure facing Texas public schools.

I’m your host, Morgan Smith.

Gov. Greg Abbott has called state lawmakers back to Austin with strict orders to complete some unfinished business from the regular legislative session that ended back in May. And if you listened to our legislative recap episode, you know there’s a lot of that when it comes to education policy. 

But it’s not teacher pay raises, increases to per student funding to help districts keep up  with inflation, or reforms to the state’s standardized testing and accountability system the governor has directed lawmakers to tackle. It’s passing an Education Savings Account that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private schools. 

There are a lot of reasons why this is bad policy for Texas, and so many lessons we can learn from the mistakes of other states that have already adopted these voucher-type programs — and we’ll get into all of that. 

But first, let’s unpack the current funding crisis in our public schools. 

During the regular session — despite a record-breaking $33 billion surplus sitting in the treasury — lawmakers failed to increase basic per student allotment enough for school districts to keep up with inflation, much less offer much needed teacher pay raises. At the same time, federal stimulus funding is about to end while many school districts have yet to regain the student enrollment they lost during the pandemic. As a result, school districts have had to make tough decisions about what services or positions to cut in order to minimize effects in the classroom. 

BOB POPINSKI: School districts were really hoping that there was going to be some legislative action during the regular session because they had to adopt their budgets here in July and August for the current school year. They were really bumped up against a lot of pressure. 

MORGAN SMITH: This is Bob Popinski, Raise Your Hand’s Senior Director of Policy. He says a substantial number of Texas school districts have adopted deficit budgets, drawing down fund balances intended to cover incidental costs until the next school year.  

BOB POPINSKI: They’re having problems sustaining the revenue that they have in their school districts. And because inflation was in the double digits over the last few years, they’re not able to keep pace with not only giving their teachers and staff a salary increase, but they’re having trouble keeping pace with just fuel costs and property insurance costs, construction costs, health insurance costs.The cost of food has gone up. And there’s added pressure to make sure that they’re following laws that were passed last regular session, like armed guards on every campus. There’s a lot of pressure for school districts to find the funding they need for a lot of different resources that they’ve been asked to do over the last few years.

MORGAN SMITH: In Channelview ISD, a district of about 9,500 students on the eastern edge of Harris County, Superintendent Tory C. Hill says that they have had to increase student-teacher ratios across all grade levels to maintain a balanced budget.

DR. TORY C. HILL: There’s no secret that there’s a teacher shortage. There’s a teacher shortage in Channelview, there’s a teacher shortage in the State of Texas, really across the entire nation. There were some aggressive things that we had to do in order to be able to attract teachers, and really that was to increase our teacher pay through the use of local funds as well as implement a very aggressive model to try to attract teachers, but that came with an expense of other things. Those challenges aren’t going away, and so right now there is a balancing act. Ultimately at the end of the day, our goal is to ensure that we’re not impacting student learning as a result of the looming and gloomy funding realities.

MORGAN SMITH: For Superintendent Hill, it’s frustrating to watch as lawmakers begin an education-focused special session on vouchers while the state lags so far behind on issues like school funding and teacher retention and recruitment. 

DR. TORY C. HILL: Education is the great equalizer, and if we miss our mark and opportunity to ensure that all students in the State of Texas receive a quality education, then we will definitely face challenges in the future as it relates to just our overall population as a state. It is critical at this juncture that we keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s ensuring that we have quality teachers in our classrooms every day and that we fund public education. We leave public funds in public schools and we continue to support our teachers, who are the backbone of our American society.

MORGAN SMITH: Superintendent Hill says it’s difficult not to view the current push for vouchers — along with the underfunding of public education and crippling standardized testing requirements — as a coordinated effort to destabilize public schools. 

DR. TORY C. HILL: We know the teacher shortage is an issue, but there seems to be great intentionality about the disruption that’s being created around public education, from vouchers to assessment and accountability to just the lack of appropriate funding. These are basic elements that are required for us to ensure that we continue to provide the best that we can for our students, and the intentional disruption components are quite disappointing.

MORGAN SMITH: And that brings us to the issue lawmakers are currently considering in Austin — Education Savings Accounts, the voucher-type program that would provide a stipend for parents who want to send their children to private schools. 

JOLENE SANDERS: As a state, and we’re talking about public education, we’re hemorrhaging, but we’re trying to do cosmetic surgery instead of addressing the immediate, urgent need.

MORGAN SMITH: Jolene Sanders is the Advocacy Director at the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. During the last legislative session she worked extensively to oppose voucher programs, which, as a political strategy, are often initially targeted at students with disabilities and then expanded to include all students. 

JOLENE SANDERS: We know that there’s a crisis with teacher shortages, funding, backlogs of evaluations and services for students with disabilities. That really was highlighted by the pandemic. And so I think we have a lot of work to do first in repairing and bolstering public education and the services for all students before we can even contemplate what any kind of ESA or voucher program would look like. 

MORGAN SMITH: What’s happening now in Texas is not an isolated push. Thirty-two states have adopted some form of voucher in the last three decades. About half of those have done so amid renewed efforts to pass these programs in the last three years. 

DR. JOSH COWEN: We’ve had more voucher programs, voucher-like programs, passed in the last 12 to 15 months than any other given year on record since 1990. Most of those follow a pattern. They’re very similar bills in each state, and most of them follow a pattern of strong pressure on the legislative side from a bill-supporting governor, often after a series of Republican primaries because the holdouts for a lot of these have been actually Republican legislators in different states. 

MORGAN SMITH: This is Josh Cowen, an education professor at Michigan State University. He has spent the last 18 years as a professional evaluator for voucher programs, starting with Milwaukee’s in 2005, which was the first in the country. As he’s studied voucher programs over the years, he said he’s come to view them as the educational equivalent of predatory lending. 

DR. JOSH COWEN: Usually these things are tied to other education funding packages like teacher raises or in some cases fully, in my view, holding hostage other public education funding programs to get these things put in because they can’t really pass them in clean bills like they used to be able to do when I got into this business. So again, the last year or so, the biggest set of expansions and voucher programs on record. This has been mostly in red states.

MORGAN SMITH: The data from other states that have adopted vouchers only provide a cautionary tale. The results are in: not only do these programs balloon in cost, they also just don’t work to improve student achievement. 

DR. JOSH COWEN: We see some of the largest academic loss on record over the last decade. The larger the voucher program and the more recent the voucher program, the worse the academic results have been for those 25 or 30% of kids who switch, who actually do use it to leave public school. And the reason for that is that most of the schools that actually clamor to participate in these programs and take new kids from the public schools, they’re what I call subprime, financially distressed private schools. They’re not your elite providers who have longstanding rich academic traditions, and there are many such schools out there, right? Those schools are fine. They don’t need the money. They often cost three or four times what the voucher cap would be. It’s instead the schools that are barely hanging on, the ones that for whatever reason, have really struggled to maintain themselves. And those are the ones that overwhelmingly fund these voucher kids. And the results show that. Many often close anyway. In Wisconsin, where I’ve spent a lot of time, 40% of the schools taking voucher payments over the life of that program have closed. And the average closed time, the schools make it about four years, and then they close. Four years after they get the voucher payoff. So we talk about this I think as if in these states, this is all about, again, academic hope and opportunity, and it’s really not. It’s really just, it’s a very targeted bailout for these kind of financially distressed private schools.

MORGAN SMITH: In Texas, it’s rural Republicans, along with Democrats, who have traditionally held the line against vouchers. Political observers expect that to continue in the special session, but it will be in the face of extreme pressure from the governor and other special interest groups. 

DR. MICHELLE SMITH: Public education in Texas has always been different than how it’s perceived in other states. So in other states, sometimes it’s perceived as unions fighting to protect their turf. I really don’t see it that way in Texas. I see it as rural communities trying to protect their own communities. I see it as people who really, and I know this is cliche, the Friday Night Lights of Texas that people are trying to protect what they know is good about their community, that this is one of the last places that draws people of differing opinions together to find common ground, to educate their students, to serve their own kids in their own community and really value what’s good about public education in Texas.

MORGAN SMITH: This is Michelle Smith, Raise Your Hand’s executive director.

DR. MICHELLE SMITH: I worry, and I know people in our rural communities worry because we’ve talked to them on a regular basis, that this is just the dismantling of what we know is best for these rural communities in Texas, that their public school is the heartbeat of their community. I also think it’s important to point out that there are a lot of really amazing school choice programs that are going on in our public schools in rural communities that are very CTE based. That the school district intricately partners with their businesses and goes to those businesses and say, okay, what do you need? What kind of students do you need to be coming out of our public schools to serve our local businesses? We’ve seen it happen in multiple communities now, that the businesses and school districts are really partnering to do innovative things for their students to make sure that they’re ready to enter the workforce when they leave their public school.

MORGAN SMITH: State Rep. Abel Herrero, a Democrat whose South Texas district spans the inland suburbs of Corpus Christi, has dedicated his career to opposing voucher programs in the House. 

ABEL HERRERO: I believe that there are people that stand to gain financially from the voucher system. I think they see that as a business opportunity. More and more people are saying, “Let’s give this private sector an opportunity to educate the population of Texas.” However, what is not disclosed, is that the monies that follow, or would follow under the proposal of the voucher system, there’s no accountability. There’s no standardized test that the private school system would have to follow. There’s no accountability as to the progression or the numbers or the testing that these individuals, students would have to undergo to prove that this system is better than the public school system that has existed.

MORGAN SMITH: Chairman Herrero says over the years voucher proponents have successfully begun to whittle away their opposition — and that now members are under more pressure than ever before. 

ABEL HERRERO: Long story short, I believe it’s a financial interest that these private institutions are seeing in the voucher system that is being proposed. They are spending millions of dollars in elections trying to get people elected that would support this proposition. To me, it’s more of making sure that every student, regardless of where they attend school, are able to receive a first class quality education. It needs to be more of an investment in the public school system, in our public school teachers, and making sure that we provide them with the tools and resources necessary to be able to educate all of the student body population that exists.

MORGAN SMITH: As the special session unfolds, be prepared for this to be a long battle. The governor has said that he is willing to call lawmakers back to Austin multiple times to get a voucher program passed, and if that still doesn’t work, he’ll take this fight to primaries.

Here’s Bob Popinski again.

BOB POPINKSI: Now is the time to pay incredibly close attention on a daily basis to what’s happening at our Texas Capitol. Special sessions are 30 days. They move rather quickly. Things will get hearings and get voted out of committee potentially in just one day. So pay attention to understand where a bill is in the process and how fast it’s moving through the process, because your voice needs to be heard, if not on a daily basis during the special session, at least on a weekly basis before the 30 days runs up because the members over there need to understand how you view the legislation moving through the process. Whether it’s a Senate bill or a House bill, there’s going to be a lot of policy discussions that are going to be thrown into the mix, and it’s going to get confusing. So the more you can pay attention to what’s going on, the more you can voice your support or objections to policies that are being talked about.

MORGAN SMITH: In the meantime, while Texas lawmakers duke it out over vouchers, public schools will continue to stretch themselves to the limits, operating without what they really need: adequate funding. 

To stay informed as the special session progresses, sign up online for Raise Your Hand’s 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, text RAISEMYHAND to 40649. 

Today’s episode was written by me, Morgan Smith. Our sound engineer is Brian Diggs and our executive producer is Anne Lasseigne Tiedt. This episode also received additional production support from Jessica Garcia. 


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