Thursday, January 26, 2017

Vouchers (by any name) and School Choice

Earlier this week, I was privileged to serve on a panel sponsored by the Coalition for Public Schools to discuss the merits and shortcomings of vouchers (by any name).  I also had an opportunity to attend the School Choice rally at the Capitol during which the Governor and Lt. Governor passionately expressed their support for vouchers.  But that's a story for a different time.

The event to discuss vouchers consisted of two panels, one of which was national in scope and largely focused on research about the impact (or lack of) of voucher programs in the country.  They also touched on the impact on special needs and ELL students since non-ISD campuses do not face the same oversight and requirements as a public school.  The bottom line of what I heard - where it can be measured, there has been little positive impact and, in some locales, an adverse impact as a result of voucher programs.

The panel on which I served included representatives of the faith community, a parent with a special needs child and an attorney.  My charge was to share a community member and business person perspective.  To that end, I addressed five specific topics as outlined below.

-    Funding - voucher (by any name) programs siphon money from districts without a commensurate drop in the costs of educating students on public school campuses.  How do we reconcile that with the Supreme Court finding that the current school system only meets "minimum constitutional requirements"?  Is another lawsuit waiting in the wings?
-    Is there “choice” in school choice?  Choice already exists but may go away - parents today can choose among charters, private schools, magnet schools, etc.  But none of those are required to accept all who desire to attend their campuses.  Thus, parents could be losing choice without understanding that they have no recourse.
-    Accountability - public schools are held to a rigid accountability system but non-ISD schools will not be subject to similar requirements.  In fact, the Lt. Governor (and a staff member with whom I met this week) continue to insist that accountability lies with the parent.
-    Transparency - voucher (by any name) dollars will be added to a debit card for use for "educational purposes".  A third party will manage this through the comptroller's office (what will that cost?) but uses are certainly subject to interpretation.  Can a new Ford F-150 be justified as a transportation expenses since the non-ISD campus likely will not provide transportation?
-    The need to invest - the focus should be on how to invest in and improve our public education system, not continue to try to gut the system to address issues impacting a small percentage of students.

Candidly, as I listened to the impassioned pleas from the Governor and Lt. Governor at the School Choice rally, their agendas clearly differ from those we support for all Texas schoolchildren.  It is up to all of us to make certain that our representatives in the Senate and the House understand the impact that a voucher (by any name) program will have on our students, our schools and our communities.  We must aggressively push to make public education a priority.

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