Commentary

Fight for School Choice Gaining Momentum in Texas

If Tuesday’s National School Choice Week rally in Austin is any indication, the fight for school choice is gaining serious momentum in Texas. Thousands of activists including parents, students and teachers took to the Capitol to show support for education options such as charter schools and home schools. But perhaps the loudest message was sent by Governor Greg Abbott who implored legislators to pass an Education Savings Account (ESA) program into law.

“I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk and when it does, I will make the choice to sign it and authorize school choice in the State of Texas.”

Here’s an excerpt from Reason Foundation’s forthcoming policy brief, The Solution to Trenchant Inequity in Texas Public Education: A Funding System that Puts Students First.

ESAs allocate a portion of a student’s funding allotment to a special account that parents can use to purchase approved services such as private school tuition, educational therapies, curricula, and tutoring. Ultimately, families are free to choose the combination of approaches that best works for their situation within a defined menu of options. Arizona created the nation’s first ESA program in 2011 with its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which was originally designed to help children with special needs and now extends to other groups including students attending underperforming schools, children in foster care and military dependents. Similar laws have since been passed in Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and Nevada.

The benefits of this innovative approach extend beyond customization. First, ESAs save taxpayers money since they are funded at discounted levels. For example, legislation passed in Nevada funds students at 90% of the statewide per-pupil average, with low-income and disabled students receiving additional support. ESAs also incentivize efficiency, as unused funds can be rolled over from year to year and even applied to college tuition later on. Most importantly though, research has proven the numerous benefits of providing parents with choice. A recent meta-analysis by Ed Choice’s Greg Forster showed that empirical studies have overwhelmingly found that school choice programs have positive effects on student achievement, civic values and racial segregation. Of the 18 random control trials on the academic outcomes of participants, 14 found school choice had positive effects while only two found any negative effect.

Texas should adopt a universal ESA program that provides participating students with 90% of their basic allotment plus any programmatic funding they are eligible for through the state’s funding formulas. As a safeguard against fraud, the state can issue use-restricted debit cards to parents that are subject to regular oversight and audits and a robust ratings service—similar to Consumer Reports or Yelp—could be created so families can rate and share experiences related to the quality of service providers, information that could then be used to restrict low-quality educators from receiving public funds. This is preferable to regulating service providers on the front-end, which would not only create barriers that would prevent diverse options from flourishing, but would also be more cumbersome to oversee.

For more on Texas’ fight for school choice, see Reason TV’s Are Education Savings Accounts the Future of School Choice?

Aaron Garth Smith is the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.