Jan 27th 2017 | Posted in Education by Kristin Gordon

Before school choice was introduced at the 85th Legislative Session, some Texans may have not been aware of this movement.  Since 2011, a week has been designated in January to celebrate National School Choice Week. Gov. Greg Abbott officially proclaimed January 22-28, 2017 as “School Choice Week” in Texas, joining two dozen governors and more than 600 city and county leaders nationwide in issuing proclamations for the week. Why do Texas lawmakers have an interest in this choice?

School choice allows public education funds to follow students, from kindergarten up through 12th grade, to the schools or services that they feel best fit their needs- whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment parents choose for their kids.
School choice profiles for private schools can be implemented in different ways.  Options include education savings accounts, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and individual tax credits/deductions. The U.S. Supreme Court has declared vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and individual tax deductions for educational expenses constitutional. Court cases that paved the way for school choice were Mueller v. Allen in 1983, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 and Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn in 2011.

Other types of school choice include charter schools, magnet schools, inter/intra-district public school choice, homeschooling, online learning, customized learning and town tuitioning.

Here is a breakdown of the program profiles for private schools:

An education savings account allows parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and other higher education expenses.

Vouchers give parents the freedom to choose a private school for their children, using all or part of the public funding set aside for their children’s education. Under such a program, funds typically expended by a school district would be allocated to a participating family in the form of a voucher to pay partial or full tuition for their child’s private school, including both religious and non-religious options.

Tax-credit scholarships allow taxpayers to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. Eligible taxpayers can include both individuals and businesses. In some states, scholarship-giving nonprofits also provide innovation grants to public schools and/or transportation assistance to students choosing alternative public schools.

 Individual tax credits and deductions allow parents to receive state income tax relief for approved educational expenses, which can include private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors, and transportation.

Thousands of Texans gathered for a rally this week at the state capitol in support of policies for “school choice.” The cause has garnered support from Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Supporters say legislation is forthcoming to advance school choice in Texas. “Every child across this great state has the right to a quality education, and to attend a school that is best for them regardless of their zip code,” said Abbott speaking at the rally.” School choice is a civil rights issue, and Texas must ensure that no child is ever stuck in a failing school. As Governor I have seen the proven success of charter schools, and will continue to fight to empower all parents to choose a school that’s best for their child.” Abbott also stated that he wants a chance to sign school choice legislation into law this year.

This isn’t the first time school choice came to light during a legislative session. During the 2015 session, the Senate voted through Patrick’s private school choice bill. But the legislation did not get a vote in the House. Critics of school choice dispute that an education savings account and vouchers would siphon much-needed funds from the state public education system. Another concern from critics is that there isn’t any accountability and that even when children are taken from public schools it doesn’t change its staff payroll, utility costs, textbooks, technology or bus transportation. This could hurt a public school’s bottom line.

“Every parent deserves a choice to send their child to a school that is best for their child,” said Patrick following the rally. “That is if you are rich. But if you are not rich you don’t have any choices and too many children are trapped in failing schools. Most of our public schools are good, some are great. But no child should be in a failing public school. That is why we need a school choice through charters and private schools. Don’t block a bill. Because when you block a bill on education, you block that child’s future.”

Texas has more than 5.2 million students in over 8,600 public schools across more than 1,200 school systems employing more than 400,000 educators. The student population is growing by roughly 80,000 per year. In May 2016 the Texas Supreme Court upheld the state’s school finance system. More than two-thirds of Texas school districts have sued the state on seven different occasions since the 1980s in an attempt to increase public education funding.

The Texas case stemmed from some $5.4 billion in budget cuts approved by the legislature in 2011, which the school districts contended left them with unfairly distributed funding and forced many to raise taxes to provide even a basic education for its students. Two-thirds of the school districts in the state sued, and in 2014, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz sided with the plaintiffs in a written opinion that was appealed to the Supreme Court by state officials.

Last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson  and House Speaker Joe Straus unveiled competing budget proposals, with Nelson’s Senate Bill 1 calling for cuts to state agencies and allocating $7.9 billion less overall than Straus’.

After factoring in population growth and inflation, the $213.4 billion Senate plan would amount to a 7.9 percent cut in total spending compared with the current budget, according to the Legislative Budget Board. The $221.3 House plan would be a 5.6 percent cut in spending.

Figures compiled by the National Education Association in a report, “Rankings of the States 2015 and Estimates of School Statistics 2016,” shows that Texas schools spent an average $9,561 per student last year. That is well under the national average of $12,251 and ranks Texas 38th among the 50 states and District of Columbia. 

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