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Will 'educational freedom' handcuff Texas' public schools?

SB 8 would provide thousands of taxpayer dollars for families to change schools. Critics wonder where the money is coming from — and whether it helps Texas students.

TEXAS, USA — For Dr. Michelle Smith, there is some irony in the new 'educational freedom' bill filed in the Texas Senate.

The longtime public school advocate finds it odd that a bill meant to help parents send their kids from public school to private school does not actually help parents whose kids are already attending a private school.

"I think the first thing that's going to happen is that existing private school parents are going to say, 'Wait, I'm not eligible for this? I thought the whole conversation was that I was going to be eligible for this?'" she says on the latest episode of Y'all-itics. "So, y'know, that part of the bill gets stricken."

Dr. Smith is the executive director of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit public school advocacy group that believes public education serves as the backbone for the workforce that powers our state.

She says "parent shopping" – the ability to pick a different school for your child – can have a negative effect on a student’s ability to graduate on time. 

She points to a recent study by the University of Texas San Antonio, which shows that every time a student moves, their probability of graduating on time actually decreases.

"So, for our students that are not economically disadvantaged, the first time they make a move to another campus, their probability of graduating on time is going to lower by 2.4%," Dr. Smith explains. "But for our economically disadvantaged students, their probability of graduating on time goes down 6.7%."

SB 8 would provide $8,000 in taxpayer money – per student – for families to move their children from public schools to private schools, including religious schools.

The bill’s author, Sen. Brandon Creighton, says a traditional voucher is money distributed straight to a family. But the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee says his bill does something different.

"For Education Savings Accounts, as it’s indicated in our policy, the comptroller’s office would take applications for the use of these $8,000 education savings accounts, and that would go directly to an approved private school that the family preferred," Sen. Creighton tells us.

The State of Texas currently provides schools a little more than $6,000 per pupil. But when you add in the amount that local taxpayers chip in, it's estimated that figure grows to around $10,000 per pupil.

So, $8,000 is the median between those sets of numbers.

But Sen. Creighton says, more importantly, they had to find a figure that wouldn’t hold the budget or lawmakers hostage in the future.

"For the $8,000, we just looked at a number that, from a scarcity of dollars standpoint, we could comfortably justify in this budget to not create any kind of a fiscal cliff," the Republican says. "We look at surpluses cautiously because we can’t obligate future legislatures or budgets to money that won't be there in the future."

Dr. Smith argues the $8,000 provided by the state will not give parents many choice options. And since rural communities in Texas are already short on private schools, if SB 8 is passed, she sees that changing – but not for the better.

"They may not have private schools right now, but there could be a little micro school or a strip mall school or whatever that pops up that miraculously will be $8,000 a year, when in reality most of our really high, high quality private schools in Texas are costing $20,000, $30,000 a year," Dr. Smith argues. "And normal families are just not going to be able to access those really high quality private schools."

The idea of school choice has fizzled in past legislative sessions due to strong opposition from Democrats, who often represent urban school districts, and rural Republicans, who want to protect the public schools in their districts, which are often the largest employers.

But SB 8 offers an enticement to those rural Republicans. Any district with fewer than 20,000 students would receive $10,000 per student who left a public school for a private school. And this carve-out for districts would last for two years.

Sen. Creighton says his bill will help districts "scale" the impact for any student leaving until they get their feet under them –  a "soft landing" as he calls it for medium to smaller districts.

While Dr. Smith says she opposes the bill, she does admit it contains some provisions that could help some parents who are stuck with a bad school, such as making it easier to transfer within a district or to another district.

But, overall, she doesn’t think SB 8 will pass.

"As the bill is currently filed, it doesn’t have the votes," she says. "It just isn’t going to get to the finish. Y'know, it may get through the Senate, but it won’t get through the House."

For his part, Senator Creighton tells us the momentum is strong and growing – but he concedes that hasn’t counted heads yet, so it’s not clear yet if his bill does have the backing he thinks it does.

Still, the longtime education advocate is adamant Texas can do all of this at the same time.

"Anyone that creates a narrative that you can’t lift up public schools and teachers and also provide educational empowerment for families is just creating a narrative that’s false and divisive," says Sen. Creighton. "We’re going to be able to accomplish both. And I think the membership will get there."

The bill goes far beyond Educational Savings Accounts, from having teachers upload lesson plans to a portal so parents can review them, to requiring “age appropriate” content. Listen to the entire episode of Y’all-itics to learn more about those details, where the dollars will come from, behind-the-scenes political maneuvering and even its companion bill SB 9, which would provide teacher raises. Also: Dr. Smith explains why SB 8 would be a significant cost for the state with the vast majority of districts in Texas eligible for the $10,000 per year for the first two years. Cheers!

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