Is There Really an Appetite for School Choice in Texas?

January 24, 2023
TFR Staff
88th Legislative Session, Dan Patrick, Greg Abbott, School Choice

It is National School Choice Week, and if you have been paying attention at all over the last few years, you are probably aware that a massive wave of school choice legislation is being implemented across the country.

Much of that success can be attributed to Corey DeAngelis, who has been one of the most vocal supporters of the movement that has taken advantage of the public education system’s abject failure in response to the pandemic.

There has also been a significant amount of backlash from Texas parents who have witnessed school curricula including things like critical race theory (CRT), the LGBT agenda, and pornographic material in public schools as early as elementary. Texas even quite a few school boards completely flip due to parental outrage, resulting in the replacement of more liberal school boards with conservative candidates who promised to stop the madness. With the state Legislature in session, will Texas follow suit with the 20+ states that have some form of school choice?

The Texas Public Education System

Public education makes up more than half of our state spending, and for the last few legislative cycles, the solution to the problem of failed public schools has been for lawmakers to pour more money on top of the dumpster fire. Unsurprisingly, many school districts squandered the money on exorbitant salaries for administrators, golf courses, stadiums, and private planes. After they irresponsibly spend the money they are appropriated, school districts have yet to focus on actual education or accountability in the classrooms. Instead, they point the finger back at the state and ask for even more money to help with the problems caused by bad local decisions.

It seems that Texas taxpayers have finally had enough, and most polling shows that the majority of conservatives are ready for a change. So, what is the Legislature saying on the matter? Very, little actually.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently made the news for saying he would exempt rural districts from school choice efforts being worked on ahead of the ongoing legislative session, only to backtrack those statements during his inaugural speech right as the session began. He said that he and Abbott “have the plan to bring school choice to rural districts” that would preserve the public school systems in those areas that are some of the largest employers.

What Is the Plan?

What is the plan, then? Not much detail has been given regarding which form legislation both Abbott and Patrick would support, but speculation seems to point to some sort of Education Savings Account.

ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public districts or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds—which families generally access via an online platform—can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses, and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services.

Conservatives, especially those who homeschool their children, have lobbed several criticisms at ESAs. Parents who homeschool in Texas enjoy one of the freest environments in the country, without the fear of hardly any government encroachment on the way they decide to educate their children. The biggest fear is that school choice legislation, especially legislation involving things like ESAs, would come with strings attached, ultimately allowing the government to get its foot in the door to start regulating homeschool curricula in Texas.

This is not an unfounded fear since government money almost always brings government regulation; once that Pandora’s box has been opened, it can almost never be closed. For this reason, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility supports the concept of school choice, but our support will ultimately depend on this sticking point. Legislation seeking to implement school choice must also safeguard parents from the possibility of big government infringing on their right to educate their own children in the way they deem best.

It is largely expected that Governor Abbott will provide his State of the State address in a matter of weeks, where he typically announces his official priorities for the Legislature to consider. We will be interested to see if school choice is on his list of priorities. According to Patrick’s comments, we should see the version of the bill that he and Abbott support very soon, and we will reserve our opposition or support until we see the plan.