Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick want vouchers in Texas, just like other red states. So they swallow a bunch of myths about the benefits of choice. They want a subsidy of $10,000 for every child who wants to attend a private or religious school, and they ignore research that tells them their assumptions about vouchers are wrong. For one thing, if every one of the 300,000 plus students asked for a voucher, it would immediately cost the state $3 billion! But they are indifferent to actual evidence. Is it wishful thinking or the desire to please their hard-right funders that drives them to overlook the needs of the more than 5 million students in public schools?

The editorial board of the Houston Chronicle, one of the state’s largest newspapers, dissected the shabbiness of their claims:

Here are the best arguments for vouchers — and why they’re wrong.  

Claim: Vouchers increase choice.

Who could be against choice? Not us. We’re just against a lack of accountability.

Texas is already awash in choice.

Take Houston ISD, with its mix of magnet schools, charter schools and traditional public schools. Texas also allows districts to participate in interdistrict open enrollment. And even if the districts don’t participate, students in certain low-performing schoolscan still request a transfer to another school in their district or even in another district.

If lawmakers want more choice, the state should be looking for ways to double down on what’s already working —and in some people’s eyes, that includes charters. Research is mixed there, too, on whether charter schools really perform any better than traditional public schools but at least there’s a thin layer of oversight. Over private schools, there could be none.

Claim: Vouchers increase choice for all students.

As more states adopt large-scale voucher systems, a clearer picture of who tends to benefit first is emerging: families already enrolled in private schools. “The only people it’s going to help are the kids who don’t need the help,” was how one rural Republican representative put it in November.

In Arizona, 80 percent of recipients were already enrolled in private schools. And when private school tuition at the top schools is tens of thousands of dollars, the benefit of a $10,000 subsidy might close the gap for a middle-income family, but is decidedly less able to do so for a low-income one. Those top tier private schools aren’t, by and large, the ones suddenly within reach. And they’re still able to reject students.

So what does that leave?

“The typical voucher school is what I call a sub-prime provider,” Joshua Cowen, a policy analyst and professor of education policy at Michigan State University, said. “They often pop up once a state passes a voucher program.”

Claim: Vouchers improve outcomes.

In the early days of smaller, more targeted voucher programs, the research seemed promising. But that promise has largely evaporated as programs have scaled up.

“I’ve been in both eras of this work,” Cowen explained. The early studies “are still the best evidence we have that vouchers work and they are 20 years old.” Instead he said more recent studies of Louisiana, Ohio and other large-scale voucher programs have shown “catastrophic, devastating outcomes” in student test scores, on par with the disruption caused by disasters including Hurricane Katrina.

Why? In part, lack of accountability.

“They don’t have to take STAAR, they don’t have to fall under A-F, they don’t have to accept all kids with a voucher,” said Bob Popinski, the senior director of policy at Raise Your Hand Texas, a public policy nonprofit that advocates for public education.

There are some programs that have added accountability guardrails with some positive effect, but without knowing what might take shape in Texas, a state that already struggles to regulate the proliferation of choice that exists today, we’re not hopeful.

Claim: Vouchers fight indoctrination.

In Texas, this latest fight for “school choice” has been tied just as often to supposed fights over curriculum and library books as it has been to improving learning.

It’s a dubious argument, alleging that public schools are indoctrinating children with what Abbott called “woke agendas.” Meanwhile, private schools that actually do follow a particular dogma of one stripe or another would actually stand to benefit the most through expanded voucher programs that suddenly mean public dollars can, in fact, support private religious schools free to teach whatever they believe.

That fight has been funded by conservative groups with deep pockets and focuses on buzz words and book titles – things that most parents aren’t really concerned about.

Literacy. Math. Bullying. Responsiveness.

Those are the issues that Colleen Dippel, director of Families Powered, hears most often from the parents who rely on her service to help navigate the many school choices currently available. Her organization supports more choice, including in the form of an effective voucher program, but she stressed that she’s equally likely to steer a parent to a public school as she is a charter or private school.

“It’s not the job of the parents to fix the schools,” she said of helping parents find the best fit for their child. “We have to start listening to them.” We agree but we believe the solutions should and can happen within our public schools.

Claim: We can fund both vouchers and public schools.

“We can support school choice and, at the same time, create the best public education system in America,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote in support of vouchers back in 2022 when he was gearing up for this legislative session. “These issues are not in conflict with each other.”

In the State of the State, Abbott promised that public schools will remain fully funded if the state expanded its limited education savings accounts available to families with students with special education needs.

These statements are laugh-to-keep-from-crying wrong.

Despite Abbott’s repeated “all-time high” claims about school funding, Texas already fails to support schools adequately now, falling well below the national average in per pupil spending. Other states, meanwhile, are already showing just how costly voucher schemes are and how they can further drain public education in the long-term.

At first, school district funding looks stable, maybe even stronger thanks to occasional sweeteners such as a boost in the basic allotment or a one-time teacher pay increase, according to Cowen.

“Those are all short-term ways to make it harder to vote against,” he said. “But you can’t sustain that in the long-run.”

Within two or three budget cycles, he said, the state can’t keep up funding two parallel education systems. And eventually the state aid to school districts takes a hit. That’s what public school districts say happened in Ohio in a lawsuit that claims the state’s voucher system has siphoned “hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions.”

Here in Texas, one-ranking official even confirmed as much in a secretly recorded conversation in which he said that public schools could lose out on funding if a student opted for a voucher: “maybe that’s one less fourth grade teacher,” the official explained.

In short: vouchers don’t make sense, or cents, for Texas. Lawmakers should reject them. Again.