The State Board of Education no longer opposes school voucher programs, a change in stance that could pave the way for the passage of legislation allowing parents to use public dollars on private school tuition.

After initially adopting legislative priorities months ago that included a call to “reject all attempts to divert public dollars away from public schools,” the board voted 8-5 to remove that item in a meeting Friday. 

Marisa Peréz-Díaz, a Democratic State Board of Education member representing District 3, which includes parts of Bexar County, voted against removing the language. 

“We, as a public education policymaking entity, are not focusing on public education when we’re saying that we won’t take a stance against vouchers” Peréz-Díaz told the San Antonio Report. “Vouchers would essentially divert public funds that would typically go to public schools into private organizations where there is no democratically elected board, no state oversight in terms of curriculum.” 

School vouchers have been hotly contested in recent decades, with Democrats and rural Republicans historically opposing the measures, arguing that they would diminish public school funds that are already low. 

That could change this year, with multiple bills already filed that would constitute some form of voucher program and Gov. Greg Abbott strongly advocating for school choice. 

At an event Tuesday at the Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi, Abbott said “without educational freedom, parents are hindered in helping their child succeed.”

“That must change, and it must change this legislative session,” he added.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation released a statement welcoming the move Friday, pointing to the growing waitlist for charter and special education schools. 

“With over 60,000 students on charter school waitlists and another 20,000 on the waitlist for Texas’ SSES [Supplemental Special Education Services] program, policymakers should be focusing on expanding educational opportunities,” Michael Barba, the foundation’s K-12 education policy director said.

School leaders oppose vouchers

But public school leaders and advocates worry that voucher programs would divert necessary funds away from schools.

Rolando Ramirez, the superintendent of the Southside Independent School District, said he is all for competition, but not in the form of vouchers. 

“We’re for parent choice, and we’re absolutely in agreement as far as the competition and making sure that each school district does their part and is competitive with any other school, public or charter,” he told the San Antonio Report. “But I think that the money should stay here at the districts.”

Southside ISD has improved its state accountability scores and academic performance in recent years, Ramirez said, adding that the district that enrolls 5,972 students was able to do so because it had adequate funding. The district also is projected to continue to grow in the coming years. 

“With the enrollment increasing, if money is taken away from the district … we can’t provide the facilities needed to accommodate the students,” he said. “So I’d be completely against that and I think it’s wrong.” 

Opponents of school vouchers, including Peréz-Díaz, have also disagreed with the use of the term “school choice,” arguing that choice is available without vouchers being needed. 

San Antonio Independent School District said in a statement that there are options for parents within public schools, including SAISD.

“Within our district, our students have the opportunity to choose from a variety of unique schools and programs designed to best fit the individual interests of their child,” the district said. “We do not support private vouchers, and oppose legislation that diverts public tax dollars to private entities — entities that are not held accountable to the public — through vouchers, tax credits, taxpayer savings grants or tuition reimbursements.”