By State Senator Don Huffines and John D. Colyandro
The Texas Supreme Court ruling on school finance held Texas’ school system constitutional, but just barely.
While deferring to elected legislators’ authority (a prudent decision,) the court unequivocally stated the need for top-to-bottom systemic reforms to bring public schools into the 21st century. The court stated: “Our Constitution endows the people’s elected representatives with vast discretion in fulfilling their constitutional duty to fashion a school system fit for our dynamic and fast-growing state’s unique characteristics. We hope lawmakers will seize this urgent challenge and upend an ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas.”
The court is right. Now, the Legislature must give parents and students education choice by passing a universal education savings account program that will give parents the power to customize their children’s education.
Five states have enacted ESA education choice, wherein parents apply for the program and un-enroll their child from public school. Next, the state funds an account that parents can use to pay for numerous services related to their child’s education. Parents could pay private school tuition or a tutor, purchase curriculum for homeschooling or a digital learning class, or save some money for college tuition, for example. If parents don’t use all of their ESA dollars in one year, they can roll over the remainder to the next school year.
The opportunities for customization would empower parents to craft an education to meet a child’s unique learning needs, using only those services the child needs and seeking out both quality and value. This would be especially powerful for parents of special needs students. There would be financial and academic accountability, as well, to guarantee that this program works for parents, students and taxpayers alike.
Five million children are enrolled in public schools in Texas. There are many great public schools in Texas. But about 736,000 children, or 14.7 percent of students, attend one of the 1,532 public schools that have been identified as low-performing. That includes more than 90 of the 227 schools in the Dallas Independent School District. Clearly, as the court recognized, our schools could be vastly improved.
These challenges are rooted in the antiquated government monopoly on the public school system that dates back to the late 19th century. Public schools remain largely insulated from the vast innovations of the 21st century. Education should not be about the school system, buildings or bureaucrats, but about parents, students, teaching and learning. Our students must have choices and opportunities in education that are as diverse and unique as they are, and the state should empower parents to deliver personalized options for their children.
Right now, only families who can pay private school tuition or move to zip codes where their children attend successful public schools get school choice. We are, and we should all be, morally outraged that many students from middle- and lower-income homes are not afforded these same opportunities.
Empirical studies definitively show that robust education choice programs improve public schools and outcomes for all students. That means even students who don’t participate in an ESA program would likely benefit. Public schools will always educate the majority of Texas students, and we can confidently say they would improve as they compete.
An urgent 21st century challenge demands a 21st century solution. A universal ESA program would help launch a new era of achievement in Texas public education. Governor Greg Abbott has issued a clarion call “to create a culture of aspiration and achievement” in our schools. Texas won the school finance suit, and now it’s time for lawmakers to achieve a big win for Texas parents and students by passing a universal ESA program.
Don Huffines is a Texas State Senator representing Dallas. Twitter: @DonHuffines
John D. Colyandro is executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based policy think tank. Website: txccri.org