Libby Cohen: I’m Libby Cohen, and you’re listening to Intersect Ed. Welcome back to our series looking at Raise Your Hand’s key legislative priorities for the 2021 session. We are now well into the session, and there is so much that looks different because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But one thing that is familiar is a conversation about vouchers. Now, the question of vouchers really comes down to a key point around whether or not taxpayer dollars should be allowed to go to private institutions or even for-profit companies for the purpose of education.
And here at Raise Your Hand, we are really clear about where we stand on this issue. We believe that public dollars must remain in public schools, and Texans are also clear on this issue. Session after session, the legislature has rejected different forms of a voucher program. But, there are questions about whether or not the pandemic creates renewed opportunities for voucher proponents. Here to tell us more about the issue is Alejandro Izaguirre, Policy Fellow with Raise Your Hand Texas.
Alejandro Izaguirre: During the last legislative session, state lawmakers wisely chose to not waste their time debating vouchers and other private school choice proposals that would divert funds from public schools, instead, putting their full energies into the passage of a new school finance law, the historic House Bill 3. That unity led to teachers getting raises, school districts getting funds to offer or expand full-day pre-K programs to eligible 4-year-olds, and taxpayers getting property tax relief.
But that was then. That was before COVID. Private school choice supporters have seen an opportunity in the pandemic to spread a false narrative that our public schools are failing and that the state should funnel taxpayer money to private schools who don’t want any accountability for results. Keeping funds in public schools is crucial because more than 90 percent of all school-aged Texans attend public schools.
From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Alejandro Izaguirre, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. In this episode, we will highlight how voucher programs could divert funding from public schools and how public schools in Texas are offering more school choice options for families across the state.
Alejandro: School choice supporters no doubt are thinking never let a good crisis go to waste. And they see an opportunity to suggest public schools across Texas were not up to the task of adapting and responding to the crisis to serve all students. Only, that’s not what Texans are saying.
According to the 2021 Raise Your Hand Texas statewide poll on attitudes toward public education conducted seven months after the pandemic closed schools across the state, 92% of all Texas public school parents expressed more or the same appreciation for educators and schools.
Parents recognize schools need more funding to help recover from COVID, and they’re afraid of the impact on the quality of education if school budgets shrunk. And what of the claims that students are trapped in failing schools?
Alejandro: The reality is that public schools across the state are performing high. To give us a better picture of school performance, we’re joined by Bob Popinski, the Director of Policy at Raise Your Hand Texas.
Bob Popinski: Alejandro, over the last handful of sessions, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in state and local policies that have helped bring greater autonomy to our public schools. We’ve seen Districts of Innovation, we’ve seen district partnerships through 1882 agreements. All of these have helped allow school districts to customize education based on student and community needs more. What we’ve actually seen is a stabilization of A through F ratings. No matter how you feel about our accountability system, 980 of our 1200 school districts and charters have an A or B rating. And what that shows is that public schools are bringing a lot to the table.
Alejandro: And what of the claim that public school districts in Texas don’t offer choice? Several years ago, Raise Your Hand was interested in knowing whether this was true, or just empty hyperbole. And what did we find? Here’s Lauren Cook, from our Strategy and Evaluation team to talk more about what we found in our survey.
Lauren Cook: What I think is amazing is that when we, several years ago, did a survey of all public school districts to see what kind of choice options they had, we were floored to see that not only large districts with the sophisticated big programs offered choice, but rural districts were offering choice, small campuses…There were really creative and innovative things going on all across the state.
What we found is when we surveyed their responses, all 50 districts, which actually represent more than 50% of the student population in Texas, all 50 of these districts had multiple forms of choice. We can at least guarantee that half of the kids in Texas are in districts that have multiple forms of choice, whether that’s options within the district to attend different campuses, magnet programs…
You had specialized CTE programs where students could get certified in so many different career-focused options, everything from STEM programs to early college, to medical programs where students are graduating with certifications in several different things that are directly tied to a future career.
Alejandro: School choice programs exist from North Texas to the Rio Grande Valley from El Paso to Houston. In Grand Prairie ISD, more than half of public schools in the district offer school choice programs. Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District also steps up to provide more school choice options for their students.
Dr. Arturuo Cavazos: It’s our responsibility to redesign and reinvent ourselves. And so in Harlingen, we embarked in this strategic planning process where we engaged over 800 people in our community, and we said, “What’s your highest aspirations for HCISC students?” Their message was, “We want them to experience a great school district. We want them to be in the best position to take on the challenges of this world.”
Alejandro: That was Dr. Arturuo Cavazos, the former Superintendent for Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District.
Dr. Arturuo Cavazos: We’re transforming our programs to allow for internships, practicums. We have a firefighter academy, we have an LVN program, we have a teacher academy, we have a media arts communication academy. We created those spaces and did deep dives because we work closely with workforce solutions.
Alejandro: Only public schools can deliver on the promise of quality choice with transparency, accountability, and equity.
Vouchers are taxpayer-funded government subsidies for private schools and vendors with no accountability for results. Vouchers reduce equitable access to educational opportunity, weaken rights for students with disabilities, and expose taxpayers to fraud. The Legislature should reject any type of voucher. Instead, the state should strengthen investments in public schools, the only system with the capacity to educate the large and diverse student population of Texas.
Dr. Luis Huerta: The lack of accountability measures really limits the ability of the state and the broader public to hold any private school who takes public money to account, and I think that should be of great concern, not just to the legislators, but to citizens in general.
Alejandro: That was Dr. Luis Huerta, an Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy at the Teachers College, Columbia University.
Dr. Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, emphasizes that voucher programs do not benefit students academically. His research finds that there were no measurable impacts of voucher programs on academic achievement.
Dr. Christopher Lubienski: Students who use vouchers to attend private schools are hurt academically by doing that. What we’re hearing a lot recently is that there’s no evidence that vouchers work. I’d say that the actual research goes beyond that and says vouchers are shown to cause harm.
Alejandro: Dr. Lubienski’s research also says that public school students actually outperformed their demographic peers in most types of private and independent schools. Further analyses indicate that academic growth is greater for students in public schools than for private schools.
In the 87th Legislative Session, it’s crucial that lawmakers make every effort to protect the investments from House Bill 3 and maintain funding for public schools. While we must support quality school choice and innovative programs within the public school system, we must oppose any form of taxpayer subsidy to private schools and vendors, such as Tax Credit Scholarships, Education Savings Accounts, vouchers for students in special education, and virtual vouchers.
Libby: Thank you, Alejandro. Thanks for listening to IntersectEd. Today’s podcast was produced by Alejandro Izaguirre with Executive Producer Laura Mellet and Sound Engineer Brian Diggs. I’m Libby Cohen. To get involved in supporting Texas public education, visit raiseyourhandtexas.org.