Sara Stevenson retired after many years as a teacher in a religious school and librarian in a public Austin middle school. She wrote the following article for the Fort Worth Telegram.

Every two years, some Texas legislators file bills to push for private-school vouchers, rebranded recently as educational savings accounts, or ESAs. Their purpose is to funnel taxpayer dollars from public schools to private and religious schools. Thanks to a coalition of urban Democrats and rural Republicans, who cherish their community public schools, these initiatives fail each legislative session. But with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick prioritizing the issue, will this time be different?

ESAs are indeed repurposed vouchers. The only difference is that with ESAs, taxpayer dollars will go directly to parents to use toward a private school, individual tutoring or other education services. Voucher advocates usually begin by focusing on special education students or low-income students.

Adherents argue that these kids are unfairly “trapped” in low-performing schools and need to be rescued. Most voucher bills, including Senate Bill 176 filed this year, state that children who qualify for special education services must waive their rights to accommodations and supplemental services, rights which are guaranteed under federal law. How does this benefit special education students?

The Council for Exceptional Children, which advocates for both disabled and gifted children, opposes voucher-type programs for all youth. It argues that if children with disabilities are “off the books,” they will return to the shadows and not receive the deserved support they need to succeed.

On the other hand, advocates of ESAs argue that parents of poor children deserve the same freedom to choose a private school or other educational options that wealthy parents enjoy. They appeal to the siren song of equality and fairness as well as parent empowerment.

The unanswered questions are: which children, which parents, who is choosing, and at what cost?

While advocates stress the idea of parental choice, it is the private schools that do the choosing. The proposed $10,000 account would go directly to the parent and could be used toward many forms of education with little or no accountability. But private schools can still accept or reject any student for any reason. A local private school admissions director once told me, for instance, that the school did not accept children with discipline records.

In contrast, public schools are required to serve every child who comes through the door. Furthermore, most highly-rated private schools charge far more than $10,000 per year at the secondary level. Who will make up the difference?

And then there’s the state budget. If ESAs go to families whose students already attend private schools, they essentially become a tax break for private-school parents. It’s estimated that ESAs will cost at least $3 billion in the first year to reimburse the parents of current private school children in Texas.

Not only do ESAs create a new middle-class entitlement, but they drain public schools of needed funds.

Perhaps if public schools in Texas had enough money to meet the needs of all their students and to provide competitive salaries for teachers, the ESA position could be more persuasive. But as it stands, according to U.S. News, the state allotment for per-pupil spending in 2022 is less than all but seven other states. Only eight states pay teachers less than the average salary in Texas, according to the Comparable Wage Index, which accounts for cost of living variations across the country.

Most importantly, if we’re going to radically change the way we fund education in Texas when our state constitution obliges us to adequately fund our public schools, what do the data say? Do children receiving private-school vouchers or ESAs perform better on standardized testing, an objective measure? According to the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington: “Four recent rigorous studies — in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio — used different research designs and reached the same result: On average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools.”

While using an ESA to put a child in a private school may please individual parents, it won’t translate into an objective improvement in learning outcomes for Texas children. So, it does not justify such a large transfer of taxpayer funds from public schools to parents’ pockets.

Sara Stevenson taught for 10 years in a Catholic high school and worked for 15 years as a public school librarian. She lives in Austin.

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On Wed, Mar 1, 2023 at 6:46 AM Sara Stevenson <> wrote: