Commentary: Defending School Choice in Texas

Commentary: Defending School Choice in Texas

By John D. Colyandro and Russell H. Withers. Published in the monitor, December 2nd, 2016.

Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, recently argued in a Nov. 20 column in The Monitor that the Texas Legislature should support public schools by not supporting school choice. His familiar arguments are at odds with the facts.

He argues, without citing evidence, that Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) “have nothing to do with improving public education.” That argument is objectively false. A Friedman Foundation (now Ed Choice) survey of the empirical evidence on school choice looked specifically at the impact choice programs had on public schools. The results were that “31 of 33 studies find the competitive effects driven by school choice programs led to improvement in public schools’ academic performance.”

Mr. Candelaria asserts that ESAs are an “entitlement,” but the entirety of the system of public education is an entitlement (and constitutional mandate), and subsidies are an essential aspect of education. ESAs are simply a new, optional program using existing dollars that will be spent in any event. ESA’s would make an existing entitlement better. Importantly, even with an optional ESA program, traditional public schools will continue to be paid 100 percent for every student who enrolls.

 Adequate funding is necessary for educating students, and the Legislature must continue to place an emphasis on school funding, as it has always done. However, while the plaintiffs in the recent school finance case argued that more funding is necessary to improve public schools, the Texas Supreme Court cited research finding “a weak correlation between public school funding and educational achievement.” Data available through TXSmartSchools backs up the Supreme Court’s conclusion. TXSmartSchools objectively shows that low-spending districts often perform better than their high-spending counterparts. Using academic progress and spending levels in Texas school districts, TXSmartSchools assigns an “Apples2Apples” comparison score of one to five stars. Forty-four public school districts and charter schools earned a five-star rating in 2015, and another 104 earned four-and-a-half stars. All of the five-star schools have “very low spending” levels relative to the rest of the state, yet perform quite well academically. The same correlations can be observed nationally, as well.

On the issue of funding, Mr. Candelaria argues that “many school districts are still trying to recover from $5.4 billion in school budget cuts imposed in 2011.” In 2011, the Legislature reduced projected biennium funding by $5.3 billion (Foundation School Program by $4 billion and special programs and grants by $1.3 billion) compared to what schools could have expected to receive under then-current funding formulas. In 2013, the Legislature restored $5.89 billion (adding $3.4 billion in Foundation School Program funding, $2.2 billion for enrollment growth adjustment, and $290 million for special programs and grants). The 84th Legislature appropriated an additional $1.5 billion, plus another $118 million for Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-K program. Furthermore, the Texas Education Agency notes that 89 percent of the 370,255 Texas students who began grade nine in 2011-12, graduated in four years; 84.1 percent graduated under the Recommended or Advanced High School Program, or the Foundation High School Program with an endorsement. So in the same period that Mr. Candelaria claims that schools are still recovering from budget cuts, completion rates suggest schools are delivering on their primary mission — to educate and graduate students — which only underscores the Supreme Court’s position.

It is also inaccurate, as Mr. Candelaria does, to assert that school choice has previously failed. EdChoice points out that 14 of 18 empirical studies find improved academic outcomes for participating students. Not only that, but additional benefits include things like desegregation, as eight of 10 studies found reduced racial segregation in schools. The study found: “A few outlier cases that do not fit this pattern may get a disproportionate amount of attention, but the research consensus in favor of school choice as a general policy is clear and consistent.”

 John Colyandro is executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based public policy organization.

Russell Withers is general counsel at the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute.

Read Noel Candelaria’s Nov. 20 column: