Despite Texas currently ranking in the bottom quarter for public school funding, Governor Abbott has shown support for private school vouchers, reviving a subject that the legislature has entertained since the mid-1990s. Though the Texas Senate has passed voucher bills, they have failed in the House. As the state heads into the 88th Legislative Session, increased support for private school vouchers has many public education and business leaders worried about the future of the state’s public education funding.
The Coalition for Public Schools defines vouchers as “anything that diverts public funds (through a tax credit, rebate, scholarship or any other means) to directly or indirectly subsidize a private education …” The coalition also states, “Vouchers allow students to be privately educated at the expense of public taxpayers.”
Rural Republican House members have voted against vouchers because diverting tax dollars from the public sector to private schools would inflict a crippling funding loss for the bedrock of rural Texas. For urban Texans, shifting education money towards private schools can cause an enrollment decline by shifting student populations out of their districts, thereby raising their property wealth per student and pushing their school districts into recapture. Recapture is where school districts must send excess local tax monies to the state under the Robin Hood plan of state education funding.
This is already happening due to unfettered charter school growth, even though charter schools often perform worse than traditional schools. Austin ISD sent over $710 million in local taxpayer funds to the state in 2020-21. Rising property values and declining enrollment translate into a higher burden for property taxpayers. Recapture has tripled over the last few years — now, it accounts for over $6 billion of the state’s biannual budget. Vouchers would only exacerbate this problem.
For business leaders, the public school system accounts for over 90% of their future workforce. Texas educates about 5.4 million students, with only a small percentage of education being in private and home schools. At a time when Texas needs to ramp up their workforce development education, it seems foolhardy to consider shifting funds away from the bulk of that toward private entities.
Finally, many Texans have ethical problems with vouchers. Besides being a tuition supplement to the affluent who can afford to send their children to private schools, the concept of giving public taxpayer money to private schools is anathema to some, and not all private schools should want it. If the history of public education litigation has taught us anything, it’s that once a private school starts receiving government funds, they will become subject to governmental regulations. One can imagine future court cases in which conservative religious schools will be forced to accommodate curriculum that they deem liberal.
Vouchers jeopardize the “wall of separation” between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, a bedrock principle of American democracy. To avoid establishing a single religion, states must be careful to provide vouchers for all private religious schools, be they those of Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other recognized religions.
A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court further emphasizes that states that use public funds to subsidize private education must make public funding available for students to attend schools that provide religious instruction (Carson v. Makin, 2022). Some Texans may not be comfortable with this, but it is a voucher system requirement.
While Texas public schools have their problems, shifting public funds away from the sparse resources that many public schools currently have would lead to disastrous outcomes for educators, students and business leaders. Let’s not make that worse by diverting our public funds to private schools.
Charles Luke is a the Policy Advisor for North Texas Commission, a public-private partnership that promotes and advocates for the region.