Author: suem

Whatever you call it, a voucher is a voucher

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a big driver of Gov. Greg Abbott’s voucher mania, is now claiming that an educational savings account (or ESA), the form of voucher that Abbott and the Senate tried to ram through the regular legislative session last spring, is not a voucher.

According to TPPF, here is what distinguishes an ESA from a voucher:

A voucher allows state education dollars to “follow the child,” enabling parents to receive tax funds to pay tuition at private schools.

An ESA puts state tax dollars into personal education accounts that parents can use to pay for “tuition at public schools, private schools or other accredited institutions. They can buy books and other educational materials and receive specialized tutoring.”

Only a school privatization group like TPPF would claim a real difference here. Unless there are rare, special circumstances, such as nonresident transfers between school districts, public schools don’t charge tuition. And as long as an ESA allows a parent to use tax dollars to pay tuition and expenses at private schools, as Senate Bill 8 from the regular session would have done, an ESA is a voucher.

The clear purpose of Senate Bill 8, which died because of strong, bipartisan opposition in the House, was to create ESAs to give public school students as much as $8,000 a year in tax money to transfer to private schools at a taxpayer cost that would have reached $1 billion a year within a few years.

Abbott supported that bill, and we may very well see another ESA bill as the voucher bill of choice during the upcoming special session. Anything that takes tax dollars to pay for private education expenses is a voucher. Period. That also includes educational opportunity scholarships, which give tax credits to people or businesses contributing to them and then are awarded to students to attend private schools.

TPPF claims that voucher opponents who correctly use the terms, voucher and education savings account, interchangeably are being “disingenuous,” suggesting we are trying to confuse taxpayers because some polls indicate there is less public opposition to something called an education savings account than to vouchers.

Calling a rattlesnake a long salamander with a noisy tail may make it sound less harmful to some people, but it is still a rattlesnake. Some people are being disingenuous here, but they are not voucher opponents.

Clay Robison

New school chaplain law isn’t about education. It’s about feeding the culture wars.

As you may already know, one of the many new laws the Legislature enacted this year will allow school districts to hire religious chaplains to counsel students. Districts also can accept their services as volunteers. This law, however, is less about helping troubled students than it is about doing what the political right wing does best – stoking the culture wars.

If the lawmakers who promoted putting chaplains in schools really cared about helping troubled students, they would have appropriated funding instead to allow districts to start hiring more professional counselors, specifically those trained in working in public schools. The post-pandemic need is great, and so is the shortage of counselors.

In a report last year, the Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of organizations working to improve mental health support in schools, said 363,000 students in Texas public schools suffered from depression and 255,000 of those didn’t receive treatment. The report also noted that the ratio of school counselors to students in Texas was one to 423, almost double the ratio of one to 250 students recommended by mental health experts. The ratio of school psychologists to students was one to 4,962, instead of the recommended one to 500.

The Legislature’s answer though was religious chaplains, volunteer or paid, who don’t have to be trained or licensed in counseling or certified as educators. Instead, educators fear, some chaplains will simply use the opportunity to try to convert students to their religious beliefs. Religion has a place in our lives, but not in public schools. Our country’s founders intended church and state to remain separate, despite the claims of religious, revisionist, self-styled historians.

This law doesn’t require school districts to hire chaplains or accept them as volunteers. But it does require every school board in the state to publicly vote on whether to do so by next March. The Legislature passes a lot of permissive, non-mandatory laws, such as this one, but it is very unusual, maybe unheard of, for lawmakers to require local elected governing bodies to vote on one of these issues and give them a deadline to do so.

This provision assures that the issue will remain in the public eye for months to come. It will give religious conservatives another issue on which to run for election to school boards, particularly in conservative parts of the state. And it will give conservative culture warriors another issue with which to attack and try to intimidate school boards into submission.

As politically driven attacks on public education have spread, school boards already have had to contend with people unhappy over COVID masking, unhappy over books they don’t like and whatever other failure, real or imagined, their constituents found a reason to beef about. Now, here is another piece of red meat for the culture wars. This issue has absolutely nothing to do with public education. Instead, it will steal valuable time away from real student needs and feed the false, pro-privatization narrative that public schools are “failures.”

Clay Robison

Vouchers were once used to promote school segregation in the South. Don’t think it couldn’t happen again.

Tax-paid vouchers for private schools have a shameful segregationist history in the United States. That’s how they got their start in the decades immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

As a way of successfully evading that order for many years, states or local communities across the South established what came to be known as “segregation academies” and appropriated tax dollars to encourage white students to attend them instead of newly integrated public schools. Black children were not allowed to enroll in these restricted institutions.

By 1969, according to a report published several years ago by the Center for American Progress, more than 200 of these segregated private schools had been established across the South, and at least seven states – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana –had voucher programs for white students. Tens of thousands of white students were enrolled in these academies as recently as the early 1970s before the federal courts eventually ended these programs.

That’s history, you may say. Surely, this kind of thing won’t happen now in Texas, not even if the Legislature were to grant Gov. Greg Abbott’s demands for a private school voucher program in the special legislative session Abbott is expected to call soon.

Maybe you better think again. Despite the Brown decision, many Texas public schools already are largely segregated by race because of geography and economics. And it doesn’t take much imagination to envision how vouchers could create even more segregation, particularly if Abbott were to convince the Legislature to enact the kind of voucher program he wants, one that favors upper-income, mostly white, students over lower-income kids of color.

During the regular session last spring, Abbott endorsed the voucher bill adopted by the Senate, which would have created taxpayer-funded education savings accounts worth $8,000 a year for students transferring from public to private schools. That bill died in the House. With annual tuition costs for the most popular private schools in Texas as high as $30,000 or more, $8,000 would be little more than a private-school subsidy for wealthy or middle-income families, many of whom could already pay their own way.

Most low-income families of color, meanwhile, would be unable to make up the difference in tuition and other private school costs, and their children would remain in under-funded public schools. And those public schools would become even more under-funded with the loss of state revenue to vouchers.

As billions of tax dollars more are spent on vouchers in subsequent years, the segregation would worsen, and the current Supreme Court majority could very well let it happen.

Clay Robison

Are Abbott and Morath deliberately sabotaging school accountability ratings to advance vouchers?

Would Gov. Greg Abbott and his education commissioner retroactively change the school accountability rules to make public schools look bad and fan more support for private school vouchers? That question is being asked, and the fact that it is being asked says a lot about how far the governor’s reputation in the public education community has plummeted over the past few years. Not that it was golden to begin with.

Educators remember Abbott’s public accusations of “pornography” in school libraries, his support of book bans, his rule against school mask mandates during the pandemic and his refusal to even consider the mildest form of gun reform after an attacker used an assault rifle to kill 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school.

And now, after stiffing public education of additional funding during three previous legislative sessions this year, the governor has made it clear that his top priority for the next session will be vouchers and the profits of private school operators, not the needs of public schools or the underpaid educators who work in them.

Small wonder the accountability rule change proposed by his appointee, Commissioner Mike Morath, has created such a stir. Morath has said he intends to significantly change the calculation of one of the elements that determine school districts’ A-F grades. He plans to raise the “cut scores” for College, Career and Military Readiness of students who already have graduated by more than 20 points when the new A-F ratings are released next month.

Under the new scoring, many districts expect to see their scores fall at least one letter grade, even if their performance improved. This has angered many districts. Some have sued the Texas Education Agency to block any retroactive changes in the scoring criteria, and many legislators also have objected to the commissioner’s plan.

Why would the commissioner change the rules in the middle of the game? What educational purpose could that possibly serve?

Maybe, as some educators suspect, the reason is political, since the new A-F grades will be released shortly before Abbott’s special session on vouchers is expected to convene. Are the governor and the commissioner changing the rules to arbitrarily lower A-F scores, claim public schools are “failures” and promote more support for vouchers?

What do you think?

Clay Robison