Tuesday’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary gave a significant boost to school choice advocates around the country. DeVos was among President Donald Trump’s more controversial cabinet nominees in part because of her strong support for school choice alternatives, including voucher programs. 

“Betsy DeVos is a passionate advocate of parents and is committed to ensuring that education in America focuses on the child – and not the system,” said Randan Steinhauser, the Texas advisor for Indiana-based EdChoice who worked for DeVos at the American Federation for Children in Washington. “The outrage we are seeing from the teacher’s unions exemplifies exactly why she is the best person for the job.

“Under Betsy’s leadership, we will see a renewed focus on innovation in education, empowering parents with options, supporting and encouraging great educators, and replicating success models that serve students based on their individual needs.”

Randan Steinhauser.
Randan Steinhauser, Texas advisor for EdChoice.

DeVos’ confirmation was unusually contentious for an education secretary nominee. After an all-night talk-a-thon by Senate Democrats and the decision by two Republicans to oppose confirmation, Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote in favor of DeVos. While DeVos’ lack of teaching and school administrative experience was criticized, it was her vocal support of vouchers, charter schools, and other mechanisms of school choice that troubled some senators during her confirmation hearing.

In Texas, school choice has gotten support from high places, particularly from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made it a top priority of his legislative agenda. The Dallas Morning News quoted Patrick in an address to the Dallas Regional Chamber as saying, “I intend to fight for school choice session after session after session.”

Victoria Rico, chair and trustee of San Antonio’s George Brackenridge Foundation, echoed Steinhauser’s optimism about increased support for charter schools at the federal level.

“I am hopeful that Mrs. DeVos’ confirmation will mean a rapid expansion of innovative educational models in San Antonio and more freedom for parents to choose the best options for their children,” Rico said.

Rico and the Brackenridge Foundation have been instrumental in luring successful charter networks such as Great Hearts and BASIS to San Antonio. She has also been a vital supporter of networks aimed at closing the achievement gap, such as IDEA Public Schools and KIPP San Antonio.

“It is too soon to know how Mrs. DeVos and, more importantly, Congress will choose to leverage federal education dollars to expand school choice,” Rico said.  “They could increase federal startup dollars for charter schools, which could help a great many students get off the growing wait lists and into new Great Hearts, IDEA, KIPP, BASIS and other charter schools locally.”

This would not only relieve the pressure on local philanthropists and foundations, Rico said, but could help expand the networks to meet the demand for places in charter schools. There are 130,000 children statewide on charter waiting lists, according to the Texas Charter Schools Association.

While charter schools have become a growing part of the educational landscape in Texas, programs that extend school choice to private schools have not enjoyed similar support.

Broadly labeled as “voucher programs,” these policies create different avenues for allowing families to use public education money to pay for all or part of tuition at private schools.

This year State Sen. Larry Taylor filed SB 3, which funds private school options through an educational savings account (ESA) program and tax-credit scholarships.

The ESA would allow families to use 60% of a public school district’s per-student maintenance and operations (M&O) budget. Economically disadvantaged families would receive 75%, and special-education students would receive 90% of M&O, Steinhauser said.

ESAs would be funded from state education funds, not the funds generated locally through property taxes, Steinhauser said. Money from the Foundation Schools Program would be placed on a debit card and given directly to parents. Families could receive enough money to cover the average private-school tuition in Texas, which Steinhauser estimates at $5,500 per year.

Private schools are not the only way to use the ESA. Homeschooling families can also use the program to pay for online learning, and families with special-needs students can use the money for therapy. 

“[ESAs] open up the marketplace to families who want a combination of at-home learning and online learning,” Steinhauser said.

While many claim these programs are open to abuse, Steinhauser is confident that the cards, which she compared to HFA debit cards, will have all necessary safeguards in place to ensure that they are used for their intended purposes.

Currently Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada, Florida, and Tennessee have school choice programs that include ESAs.  In 2016, Start Class compared scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide assessment test, across all 50 states. Mississippi ranked 48th; Nevada 44th; Arizona 36th; Tennessee 35th; and Florida 31st.

This data makes points for both sides of the school choice question. For school choice advocates, it strengthens the argument that public schools are failing children. For public school advocates, it shows that programs like school choice have not benefited the majority of the state’s children.

The other program proposed by SB 3, the tax credit scholarship, creates a nonprofit scholarship-granting organization, which distributes funds donated by businesses and private individuals who can then claim tax write-offs. Florida has a similar program, called Step Up for Students. Teachers unions in the state recently sought to repeal the program, but the Florida Supreme Court dismissed the case.

Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy group, has come out firmly against the bill.

“SB 3 is a school voucher on steroids,” said Petri Darby, vice president of marketing for Raise Your Hand Texas. “It marries a taxpayer-funded government subsidy for private schools and vendors to a corporate tax break with little public oversight and no accountability for results.”

Those hoping to see reform of the State’s school financing system are opposed to any program that channels money away from school districts.

“If Dan Patrick and his followers wanted to give all students and their parents a meaningful educational choice, they would more adequately fund public education, so that children of all economic backgrounds would have a full menu of academic offerings and electives in their neighborhood public schools,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria.

The school choice issue has created several unlikely bedfellows. Pastors for Texas Children is a network of 2,000 faith leaders committed to supporting the public school system. The self-described “conservative” group wants to see public schools conserved as a foundational institution of democracy and opposes government subsidies to private education. Executive Director Charles Foster Johnson believes that what he calls the “school choice vouchers” legislative agenda is bad for Texas and contrary to what he sees as the common good.

“We have a constitutional responsibility to support our public schools,” Johnson said. “It’s an investment in our future. It’s free enterprise. It’s morality. It’s American.”

In addition to the ethical demands of a properly funded public school system that serves all children equally, privatization is contrary to the actual priorities of most Texans, Johnson said.

“Texans believe in their public schools. We’ve got an unnecessary and frankly bitter division between what Texans will and what a handful of legislators will,” Johnson said. “The Lieutenant Governor’s been selling it, but Texans aren’t buying it.”

Johnson sees the portrayal by Patrick and others of a dysfunctional public school system as a rhetorical ploy to advance narrow private interests, and he hopes that the Senate can keep the bill from coming to a vote where legislators can be pressured into a “for us or against us” position on school choice.

“We’ve got one guy driving the privatization of public education,” Johnson said.

Public funds flowing into private schools is perilous to the separation of church and state, a further concern for the faith leaders of Pastors For Texas Children.

Once state funds become part of the operating budget for small private institutions, it opens the door down the road for state control of what can and cannot be taught in private schools.

Steinhauser maintains that protections against such regulation are built into the bill. Taking cues from the failure of the voucher system in New Orleans, where state money came with additional regulations, Texas would continue to allow private and religious schools academic freedom.

“Why would we want to take regulations and burdens and put it on something that’s working?” Steinhauser said.

Expect to hear these arguments played out during the legislative session. State-level debates may very well be a portent of the national conversation with DeVos at the helm.

“As head of the Department of Education, Mrs. DeVos would not have a magic wand, but she’d have a very good toolbox, and her record suggests she’d know how to use it,” Rico said.

In her Senate confirmation hearing, DeVos did not say that she would seek to add a mandatory school choice voucher-like program into the Every Student Succeeds Act, but did tell senators,”I would hope I could convince you of the merits of that, maybe in some future legislation, but certainly not in a mandate from the department.”

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.