The Texas House of Representatives has rejected Governor Abbott’s latest proposal to promote school choice in K-12 education. He’s said he’ll keep trying. Given the importance of public education, both supporters and opponents of school choice should consider questions of accountability and whether there are other, better means of improving public education in Texas.
All school choice programs aim to use public funds to empower parents to choose whether to enroll their children in public, private, or parochial schools, or to try homeschooling. Economists such as Milton Friedman have argued that giving parents public funds in the form of vouchers or education savings accounts (ESAs) and allowing them to in turn pass on the money to the schools where they choose to enroll their children will promote more competition among public schools or between public and nonpublic schools for more students, and money. To successfully compete the schools will improve the quality of instruction they offer. Ultimately, the best schools, whether public or private, will get the most money, while the worst schools will either have to improve their services to win more students (and their money) or risk going out of business. Supporters of school choice typically include economic free market libertarians who believe competition will improve quality, Christian conservatives who want more control over the values taught their children, and frequently inner city African Americans who believe their children are being short-changed by the public schools. Opponents normally include the teachers unions and their allies in the Democratic Party, Republicans from rural areas where there are few alternatives to the public schools, and Republicans from wealthy suburban neighborhoods who see no need for choice—they’ve already made their choices by moving into their neighbohoods—and who may fear that African Americans and Latinos may choose to send their inner city kids to the suburban schools.
Governor Abbott’s specific proposal was to allocate $10500 apiece to each of 40,000 families to create ESAs to finance their children’s enrollments in the schools of their parents’ choice, and to expand the initial program should it prove successful. It was approved by the State Senate but rejected by a coalition in the State House of Representatives consisting of Democrats and rural-based Republicans. Governor Abbott has vowed to keep working for school choice in the legislature and the primaries.
One of the issues both supporters and opponents of school choice should consider is that of accountability. Studies of school choice programs in other states show that the quality of schools created and financed by vouchers or ESAs ranges from the outstanding to the abysmal. Clearly the state must regulate and accredit private and parochial schools to make sure that they are offering a quality curriculum taught by competent educators if they want to receive public funds.
But to accredit and then finance private and especially parochial schools could prove dangerous. The state government could acquire too much power over the schools, dictating what must be taught and withdrawing funds from schools who do not comply with state standards and mandates. Advocates of school choice say they want parents to have more freedom to guide the education of their children, but excessive control by the state could reduce that freedom anyway. This, incidentally, is also a potential problem resulting from the passage of Proposition 4 earlier this month in which the property tax to support local school systems has been reduced, while the state takes on greater responsibility to finance local schools and thereby acquires greater power—the power of the purse—over them.
Perhaps an even more important issue is whether too much time, money, and effort are being devoted to school choice while another issue, heretofore ignored in the school choice debate, should be given more emphasis: The quality of the home and family lives of students. The federal government’s 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity—usually called the Coleman Report after sociologist James Coleman, who led the research for the study—said that one of the most important determinants of how well students do in school is the nature of their families. The children who do the best in school are usually from stable two-parent families where education is respected and encouraged. The parents read to their children or have their children read to them, and they monitor their children’s homework and progress in school. Such an environment puts children, regardless of race, at a competitive advantage over children from broken homes, or whose parent (or parents) don’t take their education so seriously. The more fortunate children have a greater chance of success no matter how poor their schools are, while the chances that less fortunate children can get a good education are much lower.
This is not to say that the quality of schools or how they’re financed is unimportant. Students from supportive homes may still do even better if enrolled in top-notch schools, and students from unsupportive homes may still benefit from gifted teachers anyway. But given the greater importance of family social structures, perhaps more time, effort, and money should be devoted to the broader issue of family structure and less to the more limited issue of school choice. Possible ways and means by which this may be accomplished may be presented in future columns.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton from 1987 until 2023. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.