Even in defeat, Abbott continues to lie about vouchers

After lying for a year or more about the public benefits of spending tax dollars on vouchers for private schools, Gov. Abbott continued the practice after the Texas House delivered a firm 84-63 vote against his top legislative priority. In a statement published in the Austin American-Statesman, Abbott said the “vast majority” of Texans support vouchers.

Wrong. I don’t care how many “pro-voucher” polls Abbott and his school privatization allies want to claim, the simply reality is this: If the vast majority of Texans supported the idea of giving away billions of their tax dollars to unregulated private schools, Texas would already have a voucher system. We don’t, and if the House vote holds, we still won’t have one.

Abbott blamed the anti-voucher vote on the “small minority of pro-union Republicans in the Texas House who voted with the Democrats.” More untruths.

The 21 House Republicans who voted against vouchers last week were exactly one-fourth of the House Republicans who were present and voting that day. They are not “pro-union.” They are pro-public education. They are lawmakers who strongly support their local public schools. And they agree with teachers’ groups, school board members, superintendents and other public education advocates, union and non-union alike, that it is dangerous nonsense to divert tax dollars to private schools, especially when Texas public schools are woefully underfunded.

They also recognize that they have a sworn constitutional obligation to support their public schools and no obligation whatsoever to private schools, nor to a governor and billionaire political donors who want to destroy public education.

Clay Robison

Education tax dollars belong to everyone, not selective parents

The Texas Tribune recently reported a Texas legislator promoting vouchers as a way the state could give taxpayers their money back if they move their children from public to private school.

“I had a superintendent yesterday tell me, ‘How can you support public dollars going into private schools?’ And I said, ‘I just don’t agree with the premise of your question because it is parents’ dollars to begin with,’” the lawmaker said.

Other voucher advocates are making similar arguments, denying the reality that taking tax dollars to benefit private schools will damage public education. They deny or distort the principle that taxation in our country is how we provide for the public good through access to such common necessities as national defense, law enforcement, fire protection and public education.

Most people never experience a house fire, but if they live in a city, they pay taxes to maintain a professional fire department. And we don’t pay bounties for law enforcement. We pay taxes.

It took us a long while to get here, including years of primitive, patchwork educational opportunities as our country was developing and the segregated schools, including many supported by vouchers, that aren’t as far behind us as many people would like to think.

But our public schools have become one of the most important parts of our country’s foundation. They have done more than anything to produce the inventions and other instruments of our progress as well as millions of individual success stories. Every taxpayer, including private school parents and people who never have children, contribute to public education because we all benefit from the technological improvements, cultural advancements, more-educated workforce and higher standard of living our public schools have made and continue to make possible.

Tax dollars spent for public education are not “my” dollars, “your” dollars or “their” dollars. They are public dollars raised for a public good, an essential, life-changing public service that is available, tuition-free, to every child who lives in a school district, regardless of color, family income or any other demographic descriptor.

The drafters of the Texas Constitution recognized the importance of education when they required state leaders to provide for a system of free public schools.

Now, we have a state leadership that is trying to destroy all that. For years, this leadership has deliberately underfunded public schools and the health care and other support services that more than half of the public school enrollment needs. It is difficult, even impossible, for sick and malnourished children to perform well in a classroom.

The same leadership also administers a punitive, counterproductive testing system that wastes millions of additional educational dollars every year, while mounting political attacks on teachers for teaching uncomfortable truths about our history and culture and for celebrating diversity in their classrooms.

Now, Gov. Greg Abbott and his legislative allies want to starve public schools even more – and further weaken our democracy — by diverting state funds to unregulated and unaccountable private schools.

The education savings account, or voucher, bill approved by the Senate last week may start with a $500 million price tag, but within a few years it will balloon to untold billions of taxpayer dollars being lost to Texas public education.

The governor and other voucher advocates claim that all they are trying to do is give parents the “choice” of a private school if they think that is better for their children. What they really are doing is trying to please wealthy campaign contributors who want to use tax dollars to underwrite private schools, including religious schools that provide the more-selective kind of ideological instruction they want to give more Texas children.

If some parents want to spend their own money to send their children to private or religious schools, that is their right. But the taxpayer-funded vouchers that Abbott is trying to give them are not their money. It is our money, public money that will forever be lost to public education and millions of other school children who need it.

Clay Robison

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