School choice divides public, private schools

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School choice and school vouchers are some of the most controversial developments in education and can be a source of rifts between public and private educators.

Renee Sawyer, principal and administrator of East Texas Christian School, supports giving parents the choice of where their children attend school and where their taxes go.

“I believe as an educator and as a parent, where I put my student is my choice, and it should be my choice where I allocate my money – where I choose to put my money,” she said.

Senate Bill 3 was introduced in the Texas Legislature Jan. 30 to help give parents that choice. Written by District 11 Sen. Larry Taylor, representing portions of Brazoria, Galveston and Harris Counties, the measure would allow students to move from public schools to private schools or home school situations and use a portion of the money the state allocates per child to help make the move.

Although the bill, which boasts parental options for their students’ education, sounds good on the surface, Kilgore ISD Superintendent Cara Cooke said, there are multiple places where she believes it falls short.

One of the purposes listed in the bill is to improve public schools, but Cooke said, her first concern is she does not see any description in the bill of how public education will be enhanced if the bill becomes law.

“They’re taking funds from school districts and students from school districts, I do not see how that improves public schools,” she said.

Earlier this month, Texas District 1 Senator Bryan Hughes explained a portion of the state funding would travel with the student if he or she chooses to attend a private school or turn to homeschooling. However, a portion of those state funds would remain in the student’s assigned independent school district.

As an example, if a student living in Kilgore ISD chooses to enroll at East Texas Christian School, ETCS would receive a portion of the funds the state provides per student. The remaining portion would still go to KISD.

The percentage the student would be able to take to a private school or home school situation can vary from 60 percent to 90 percent depending on the situation, based on the family’s income and whether the student has a disability.

The public school district or “home district” of the student would then receive – for the first year – “an amount equal to 50 percent of the difference between the state average maintenance and operations expenditures per student in average daily attendance for the preceding fiscal year and the amount the child’s parent received” from the state.

Sawyer views school choice legislation as a way to elevate the standards of both private and public institutions by having them compete with each other. In the end, she said, giving parents a choice puts the focus of education back on the student.

“In the end, I think choice is always good,” she said, questioning if the education system in general falls short by not helping parents make that choice.

Both Cooke and Sabine ISD Superintendent Stacey Bryce, though, expressed concerns with the disparity between how the state holds public schools accountable and how it measures private schools’ performances.

“I don’t think that people’s tax money should be going to someone in order for them to send their kids to a private school,” Bryce said. “Of course private schools [do] not have the same accountability that public schools have… For a private school to be getting tax payers’ dollars they need to have the same accountability that a public school has,” including the state-mandated State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and how they spend the money they receive.

“We have all of these regulations, and a lot of them are binding,” Cooke said. “They restrict us from doing what we really need to do. Some of these regulations are the problems… The way I’m interpreting this, it looks to me like they are flat saying [private schools] will not be held to the same regulations as a public school. How is that even right?”

In addition to the differences in accountability, Cooke noted the bill in its current form, will allow parents to begin homeschooling their children and use the funds received from the state to purchase curriculum material or textbooks.

“Unfortunately I’m also aware that some people use homeschooling as a way to just pull their children out and say they’re being homeschooled,” she said. In some cases this occurs because the family needs the student to work and help bring income into the household or take care of younger siblings. “I understand that, but that child did not get an education… I’m afraid we will just become a partner in that unless there’s some true accountability.”

In addition to the accountability, Cooke said, private schools will not be required to provide the same services as public school districts, including those for special education, the free and reduced lunch program, transportation and “every kind of service imaginable.”

“We are charged with meeting those needs,” she said. “Private schools will not have to do that.”

Sawyer noted her school may not be the best choice for some students just as not all students succeed at public schools. While some students attending a public school might do better in a smaller environment provided by a private school; alternatively, she said, a student requiring special education services may do better in a public education setting because of those services public schools provide that are not mirrored at private schools.

“What’s best for the student: That’s where the choice needs to come in for the parent,” Sawyer said, “and when they don’t have the funds to do it, it limits their choice… To me it’s just what’s best for each individual student. You should be given that choice as a parent.”

Sawyer said the cost of tuition at ETCS – $5,100 for high school students – and other rural private schools is not the same as the $10,000-plus required by private and parochial schools in more urban areas of Dallas or Houston.

According to the Texas Tribune, a family of four making $89,910 per year would receive $5,400 per eligible student, which would cover tuition at ETCS.

Bryce addressed the private school’s ability to select which students enroll -- that’s not an option at public schools, charged with educating all students assigned to the district.

“Private schools can turn down anyone they want to… If [the state is] going to give them taxpayer money, then they should have to educate all kids,” he said.

As Texas legislators debate and amend the school choice bill throughout the session, Bryce and Cooke both said, they will be watching to see what happens.

“I just hope all of our legislators take a close look at what is really being proposed and consider the effects on all the students we serve,” Cooke said.

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