School choice is shaping up as a significant point of contention this session, with political titans such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declaring he and Gov. Greg Abbott are “all in” on supporting school choice legislation alongside conservative policy organizations like the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).
Major opponents to school choice include the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), lobby groups like Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT), and some Republican lawmakers, primarily from rural districts.
Data compiled by Transparency USA indicates RYHT may spend between $2.1 and $4.3 million lobbying the Texas Legislature this session.
Several common concerns cited by the opposition to school choice are that it would take money away from public school districts, and would not have the same financial and academic transparency standards that are presently applied to public schools.
A publication by RYHT contends that school choice vouchers “lack accountability for public funds,” exposing taxpayer funds to potential fraud, and do not adhere to the same academic accountability standards as public schools.
“Private schools are not required to administer the STAAR Test or end of course exams, be rated under the state’s A-F school accountability system, or transparently account for their funds and spending,” the RYHT policy brief says.
Conversely, RYHT and others are also advocating for the state to allow public schools to move away from the STAAR test, both in graduation requirements and how schools are graded A through F, writing that there is a lack of trust among parents, business leaders, and community members in the current accountability system.
According to the Texas Education Agency, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test (STAAR) is administered to public school students at the end of each term for third through eighth grade to determine how they are doing in school. The test evaluates readiness in multiple areas including reading writing and mathematics, and for high school students, the test is used to determine graduation eligibility.
Mandy Drogin, who specializes in education policy with TPPF, criticized the RYHT agenda in a statement to The Texan, writing that RHYT’s call for academic reform is in “direct conflict” with their own reasons for opposing school choice.
“They want to water down school accountability measures at a time when parents are demanding more curriculum transparency and assurances that schools are delivering on the promise of a high-quality education,” Drogin wrote. “Their proposals will make the system so confusing and biased that it will be practically impossible for a parent to understand what is truly being taught to their child.”
Drogin also offered an explanation of what her organization’s policy visions for school choice would look like relating to financial and academic transparency, writing that “academic, fiscal, and parent satisfaction will be a part of any education savings account (ESA) legislation we support.”
“Every school must be accountable to a parent, which includes transparency into what is being taught and why it’s being taught, commitment to a high-quality education, and respect for the parent as the ultimate decision maker in their child’s life, especially when it comes to education,” she added.
In addition, Drogin says TPPF is recommending that schools with ESA students will need to administer a norm or criterion-referenced assessment each year, which she says is already standard practice at Texas-accredited schools, and that vouchers would be subject to third-party audits to ensure they are only used for qualified purposes.
The push for school choice legislation received an additional boost this week, with a University of Houston poll indicating strong support for the issue statewide and the strongest support coming from black and Latino respondents.
Update: RYHT Senior Director of Policy Bob Popinski emailed this statement to The Texan after publication.
“Raise Your Hand Texas opposes any form of voucher program and proudly supports the 5.4 million students attending our public schools.”
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Matt Stringer is a reporter for The Texan who writes about all things government, politics, and public policy. He graduated from Odessa College with an Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Management and Leadership. In his free time, you will find him in the great outdoors, usually in the Davis Mountains and Big Bend region of Southwest Texas.