We’re in the middle of a grassroots uprising for school choice here in Texas. Unfortunately, the compromises made along the way to make the plan acceptable to legislative Democrats have reduced it to what is essentially a first baby step on a long and hopeful journey. But at least it’s progress.
This plan is embodied in Texas House Bill 1263 which provides a plan for school choice for a limited number of students. It would allow them to essentially have the full value of the amount spent by state and local government on tuition (about $7000 on average) from their public school to spend at a private school of their choice. That’s the good news. The amount of the vouchers is much higher than anyone would have hoped for. The bad news is that the reason that they could get such a high voucher value approved is the extreme restrictions placed on who can actually get a voucher.
The restrictions are pretty extensive and rule out all but a very limited number of students. The plan will only be available in urban areas with a population over 800,000 – so right off no help for the impoverished rural districts which are one of the biggest problem areas in the state. The public school the child is leaving has to be low performing, with 50% or more of the students failing state-wide standardized tests – so there’s no escape if your school is just mediocre. The student has to actually have been enrolled in public school for a year to qualify – so you have to pay with a year of bad education to move on to a better education. Family income has to be within 200% of the cut-off for the subsidized federal school lunch program ($52,000 for a family of four) – this cuts out all but the most needy students. If you don’t meet the income criteria you can still get into the program if you come from a non-English speaking household, have learning or emotional problems, or have have a history of violence or abuse within the family.
What this means is that basically the only students who qualify will be from underpriveleged backgrounds, very poorly prepared for a more advanced curriculum, and likely saddled with social, emotional or mental problems. These are not exactly the kinds of students existing private schools are prepared to teach, but on the other hand the voucher values are high enough to encourage the creation of some private special education schools designed specifically for these inner-city problem kids. So, the plan isn’t much, but it is at least a potentially good thing for some of the most needy kids and it’s likely to be a huge bonanza for the Catholic parochial school system which is better prepared to deal with inner-city Hispanic kids and will be the likely first choice for a lot of these students.
The proposed plan has been greeted with considerable enthusiasm by inner city Hispanic parents. Middle-class urban African-American voters who have been among the strongest advocates for school choice in Texas are not as enthusiastic because the income cut-off disqualifies many of them from the program. Among Hispanics the enthusiasm is reaching a fever pitch. Today they marched on the state capitol in support of the bill, and a poll taken among Hispanics in San Antonio showed a 76% approval rating for the plan, when the approval numbers for vouchers are closer to 50-50 with a state-side ethnically diverse sampling. This bodes well for the passage of the bill, because as one of the Hispanic parents said at the capitol today “When 76 percent of Democrats favors school choice, it’s time for our elected officials in Austin to listen to their constituents and to implement a pilot program.”
One problem is that this proposal may be targeting the wrong kids. The group most in need of school vouchers are not poor, inner-city minorities. Urban minorities are actually one of the groups best served by public schools, and private schools aren’t really intended to handle special-ed and multilingual education. The kids really suffering under the current system are the children of the middle class, especially those who are of high intelligence, who are stuck in mediocre to low-performing schools because their families can’t quite afford to pay for private school. They are doomed to mediocre education and second rate schools and ultimately admission to an inferior college because their means don’t match their educational potential. These kids could really benefit from a voucher program much more than those targeted by the current plan, because it would take them out of the trap of public education and put them into a private school environment where they could flourish. In addition, these kids parents might be able to provide them the additional funding to attent somewhat better private schools so they would benefit even more.
This plan will potentially do some good, but it’s not nearly the comprehensive voucher program kids in Texas really need. Restricting vouchers based on family income is inherently unfair, and while it makes this bill an easier sell to obstructionist Democrats, it does nothing to help those who need educational relief the most. Every kid deserves a chance at a better education, and it’s not fair to deny one the chance you offer to another just because his parents make slightly more money or his school performs marginally better. I see lawsuits coming almost immediately once this bill is passed and parents start to realize what their kids are being arbitrarily denied.
Still, it’s a small ray of hope and if it works we might be able to build on it and achieve a truly meaningful solution to the state’s educational problems. It’s also particularly encouraging to see so many Hispanics joining in and realizing the value of vouchers. With urban middle-class black voters already on board and many more conservative Anglo voters long since convinced, this might be the start of a wave of change that sweeps the nation.