In 1876, state leaders in Austin approved the Texas Constitution, which included establishing and providing “for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Our forefathers had a vision that the Constitution would provide a quality and equal educational system for all future young Texans.
Today, 136 years later, public education is threatened as legislators struggle with not only how to raise funds for Texas public schools, but how to adequately and equitably distribute the resources for all Texas’ students.
Funding public education continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing the legislature each session; the 83rd will be no exception. Texas’ public school systems are threatened with many lawmakers believing school choice, vouchers and charter schools as the best solution to improving public education in our state.
At a time when our state recently cut $5.4 billion from Texas public schools, the vocal minority is gaining traction to provide state funds to the more than 600,000 students who are attending private or home schools in our state. While these individual families would directly benefit from such legislation, others in the public school system would not. In fact, the fleecing of public education would exceed $2 billion.
Vouchers will jeopardize the quality of education throughout our state. A common misconception is that parents may use them to leave the public school system to enroll their children in a private or home school.
In fact, these families would face many obstacles. Many private schools have selective enrollment and do not accept all students, potentially leaving those with behavior problems or learning disabilities in public schools.
Under most proposed plans, school vouchers would not fund the entire cost of tuition. Therefore, only families who could afford to supplement additional tuition would be able to attend. As education costs increase, so would the fees at private schools to the point where vouchers would not sufficiently cover even the basic costs.
Most private schools do not provide free transportation, so only students whose families could transport them to school would benefit from the voucher. Many private schools are parochial where religious orientation may not be appropriate for some families, raising the question of separation of church and state.
Another option in “School Choice” may be to expand the number of charter schools opening in Texas. Since charter schools were created by a 1995 state law, more than 30 percent have been dissolved because the charter was expired, revoked or returned to the state. In a recent report to the Senate Education Committee, Senate members learned Texas does not have good oversight of charter schools, does not timely assist charters in jeopardy and does not close them when they are proven to be ineffective.
A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO) is commonly used as a foundation for discussions on charter effectiveness. Analyzing longitudinal test scores from 16 states, CREDO researchers compared growth in student scores in charters to growth in scores at schools students likely would have attended if they had remained in public schools. They found that student performance in eight out of 10 public schools outperformed or equaled their charter counterparts.
With the exception of a few, charter schools have been largely unsuccessful. The public schools are left to pick up the pieces when charter students return to the system. The cost of remediation in higher education grows as many of these charter school graduates attempt to catch up.
Is the educational system equal when charter and private schools can legally select which students they want? While some truly want what is best for all students, and work to include them, others select only the highest performing, leaving others behind for the opportunity gap to widen. The result will be government schools serving the most difficult to educate or poorest students and not likely to be well funded.
Many charter schools are owned by private corporations that may have licenses in several communities. Their primary goal is to make a profit each year just like a business, while the ultimate goal should be to ensure students learn and are working towards preparation for life after high school. Public school teachers work tirelessly to ensure such preparation. To increase the number of charters in our state would slowly suffocate public education in Texas.
The creation of vouchers and expansion of charters would negatively impact the health of local communities, both in metropolitan and rural communities. They cannot replace the value of neighborhood schools that are the strongest fabric of local communities. In fact, there is no system in our society that creates community like public schools.
Texas public schools are at a major crossroads.
We must work together to ensure that the almost 5 million students attending the state’s 1,041 public school districts and its 200-plus charter schools are prepared for the future.
This is the 21st century; it’s time to provide the excellence in education, along with the equity and innovation, needed for student success.
We need to ensure that our students who are starting school will be able to compete with their international peers upon graduation from high school. We need to focus our energy and efforts on improving one system; the public school system, rather than divide our resources among fractured options where the goal of universal, high quality education for all cannot be attained.
This will not happen if public schools are continually asked to do more with less. Why not improve our public schools by bringing back our resources, and supporting the work of teachers everywhere?
DR. JAMIE WILSON is superintendent of schools for the Denton Independent School District.
DR. STEPHEN WADDELL is superintendent of schools for the Lewisville Independent School District.
DR. JERRY R. THOMAS is a dean and professor in the University of North Texas College of Education.