'School choice' raises concerns over future of Texas education

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At the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend, Republican politicians galore touted the merits of so-called “school choice.” Better known as vouchers, a serious campaign to allow public funds to go toward more charter and private schools will undoubtedly be underway next year when the Legislature meets. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the overwhelming favorite in the lieutenant governor race, has been a particularly vociferous proponent of charter schools. Given the lieutenant governor’s almost dictatorial control over the state Senate, significant action on this topic will likely occur in the next session.

But despite what Patrick and many others may have to say, charter schools are not the panacea they are all too often made out to be. Charter schools, which are subject to less governmental regulation, directly compete with public schools. Nationwide, many have an ugly history of “cherry picking” students from wealthier families in an effort to inflate test scores.

This is precisely what has occurred recently in Texas. Education Commissioner Michael Williams received a thorough rebuke from the State Board of Education, nobody’s idea of a liberal board, for going around the board to bring in a chain of charter schools infamously renowned for the aforementioned “cherry-picking.” Specifically, the chain faced vivid criticism from Tennessee for allegedly operating their schools exclusively in rich neighborhoods. 

Though Patrick and others may shed crocodile tears over arguments such as school choice for children and free markets for families, their true intentions are somewhat murky. The destruction of the urban school district, in their plan, ultimately leads to a full voucher system, wherein students are compelled to attend private schools of their choosing.

But, unsurprisingly, when this voucher system was tested some years back in Cleveland, the state of Ohio gave parents a meager $2,250 a year, a pittance compared to the tuition and fees of most private schools, which often exceeds the cost of in-state university tuition. Except for the independently affluent, students overwhelmingly were routed into parochial schools affiliated with the local archdiocese, where they received religious instruction on the state’s dime.

The public school system was created to provide a neutral, secular and rigorous environment where all students, irrespective of class or culture, would have equal opportunity to succeed. Today, some tough challenges are facing these schools within Texas’ major cities. But the solution is surely not to abandon them and go back to the dark ages.