Liberty or a Red Herring?

In the education field, there are several buzz words that fly around at particular times that catch the public’s attention. For roughly the past 18 months, one of those buzz words was “critical race theory.” The average citizen may be able to identify it, but to explain critical race theory, well, that person may not be able to do so. Another buzz word, which comes in different forms, ebbs and flows in talking point popularity is “school vouchers,” “school choice,” or even “education liberty.”

Before getting into the politics of this issue, facts need to be examined. Stanford University published a study in 2017 that found no evidence of significant standardized test score improvement as well as granular gains in graduation and college enrollment rates directly due to school voucher programs. Couple that with the Brookings Institute’s 2017 study that suggested “on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools.”

Voucher editorial by Walt Handelsman

National Public Radio aired a piece on Indiana’s voucher program — the largest in the country — in 2017. It reported most voucher recipients are mainly metropolitan and white. In examining current data, that holds.

Another persistent argument from reformers is how school voucher programs like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are intended to help students from low-income families get a better education than what they had. When examining the financial thresholds that need to be met in order to receive a voucher in Indiana, a family of four can receive half of the voucher with a yearly income ranging between $71,000 and $95,000. It would be astonishing if this range is considered low-income.

The last argument that is often associated with voucher programs is “competition.” Voucher advocates want to compare schools like businesses because, well, they do not know any better. They consistently argue schools should compete and if they compete, parents and students win. This cookie-cutter measurement is folly and is what brought us standardized exams. Success in education is not business-like; it is subjective to every student, every day.

Gov. Abbott supporting “School Choice Week” in 2019 (photo credit: Texas Tribune)

With facts presented, voucher programs are, at best, disingenuous. Their educational value is the same as public schools, which do the best they can to educate all students. If voucher programs worked as well as their advocates claimed, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Indiana; Vermont; and Louisiana would be the prime examples of their success. They, however, are not.

While supporters of voucher programs tout cherry-picked results, they have two powerful allies in Texas on so-called “school choice,” Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.

In a late January press conference in Kingwood, Gov. Abbott announced a tax plan where he claimed the 2023 session, “you’re going to see a stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the State of Texas.” Shortly thereafter, Gov. Abbott visited a charter school in Lewisville. There, he laid out his plan for a “parental bill of rights” when concerning public education. What he discussed was nothing new in Texas law, but the importance of these events was to tap into conservative frustration over school closings due to the pandemic and the fear of teaching “critical race theory” in order to get supporters of this issue enthusiastic about this re-election.

Gov. Abbott in Lewisville (photo credit: Dallas Morning News)

With Lt. Governor Patrick, who has been a long-time advocate for school voucher programs, potentially leading the Senate in 2023 for a third term, momentum could take off for this issue. But history has shown, it is dead in the Texas House. This has been the case for some time due to the rare voting coalition of rural Republicans and nearly all Democrats. If one wonders why, the politics is clear. Nearly all Democrats are against voucher programs because of the programs’ unproven track record; whereas rural Republicans are no friend to these programs due to lack of choice in remote areas. If a family in Dickens received a voucher and wanted their child to go to Lubbock High, how could that family ensure their child promptly arrives to Lubbock High and gets home once school ends?

In the Texas Declaration of Independence, 59 patriots believed in public education. Stating Mexico has “failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources, and although it is an axiom in political science, that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect a continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity of self-government.” Following their inspiration for public education, it is a guarantee in Article Seven, Section One of the Texas Constitution. The Founders and Framers of Texas Constitution believed in public education enough to make it a cornerstone of Texas democracy.

A small passage from the Texas Declaration of Independence

As we begin celebrating Texas independence, I am reminded of the 1985 cult classic film Clue. There is a memorable response when one of the characters asked the known murderer about communism and it goes “Communism was a just red herring.” Voucher programs are the red herrings in education and we should not fall for them.

End scene from Clue (1985).

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Drew Landry

Drew Landry

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Government Prof; Baseball fan; Political junkie; @drewllandry on Twitter