A teacher leads a class at Stewart Elementary School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When taxpayers hear the words “education reform” or “school choice,” they would be well advised to grab their wallets and purses, because the people talking are after one thing: their tax dollars, with little to no accountability.

If the alleged education “reformers” would put half the time, energy, and resources into supporting their neighborhood public schools as they do into concocting and promoting half-baked privatization schemes, all our school children could benefit, not just the select few who would go to some of the better private schools.

These “choice” gimmicks have taken on a number of forms over the years: vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and now education savings accounts, or ESAs. They would take tax dollars from underfunded public school classrooms where the vast majority of Texas school children are educated and divert them to private educational pursuits for a relative handful of kids. Such privatization initiatives share the fatal flaw that makes them unacceptable to the real Texas education experts, from classroom teachers to principals to superintendents and school board members.

The latest scheme to hit Texas is the education savings account, which proponents say would allow parents to “customize” their children’s education by subsidizing private school tuition, helping with charter school expenses, or paying for home-school materials such as a new computer.

An ESA is a voucher in a see-through disguise, and it’s a pretty open-ended voucher at that.

We at the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) have no problem with parents sending their children to private schools, provided the family can afford to do so. However, we strongly oppose a state policy that requires other taxpayers to subsidize that family’s tuition payments. The Texas Constitution says nothing about private schools or vouchers, it contains no provision giving parents the right to “customize” their children’s education, and it doesn’t allow for private schools to cherry-pick their students at the taxpayers’ expense.

The Constitution does require the Legislature to support an “efficient system of public free schools,” a responsibility that the diversion of tax dollars for privatization would erode, not address. Although the Texas Supreme Court recently declared the school funding system constitutional, serious issues of adequacy and equity remain for Texas’ 5.2 million public school children, most of whom would never see a voucher or an ESA under the privatization proposals being debated in advance of the legislative session that will convene in January.

Texas spent around $9,561 per student in average daily attendance (ADA) during the 2015-16 school year, ranking Texas 38th among the states and the District of Columbia, according to rankings compiled by the National Education Association (NEA) from figures provided by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and other state education departments.

That spending level put Texas $2,690 per student below the national average, and an additional $1,000 per student below the U.S. average from 2010-11, the last school year before the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget in 2011.

Those cuts cost 11,000 teaching jobs and forced thousands of Texas children into overcrowded classrooms. Much of the funding has since been restored, but many school districts still haven’t fully recovered and are continuously growing. Each year, total public school enrollment in Texas increases by about 80,000 children.

Moreover, about 60% of Texas’ school enrollment is low-income. Many students don’t speak English, and classroom problems are compounded by poor nutrition and inadequate health care. These are issues that the State government has also failed to adequately address, and they certainly won’t be addressed if vouchers or education savings accounts get a share of our tax dollars.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who as a State senator voted for the school budget cuts in 2011, is Texas’ biggest cheerleader for vouchers and school privatization. But vouchers would worsen rather than improve the educational prospects for the low-income kids he says he wants to help. Even with vouchers, most low-income families wouldn’t have a choice because they still couldn’t afford tuition at the best private schools, and the diversion of tax dollars would further undermine their neighborhood public schools.

Patrick and other voucher advocates contend that vouchers won’t hurt public schools because when a student takes a voucher and leaves, the school won’t need the money for that child. But that bogus argument ignores the fixed costs – buses, bus routes, and utilities, to name a few – that a district can’t proportionately reduce, and those costs are significant.

Wisconsin has the longest-running voucher program in the country, and its taxpayers, students, and educators are paying dearly. During the 2015-16 school year, the average voucher student attending a private school received about $2,000 more in general state revenue than the average public school student. But public school students as a whole significantly outscored voucher students on the English, math, and science versions of Texas’ STAAR tests last spring.

In practical terms, Wisconsin operates two education systems, one public and one private. The Texas Constitution only allows for a public education system, and the Texas Legislature is constitutionally obligated to support and improve it, not experiment with privatization gimmicks that pick winners and losers.

Legislators need to invest more resources into public schools to give every student an opportunity to succeed.

Noel Candelaria

Noel Candelaria is president of the Texas State Teachers Association and a former special education teacher in the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso.