Vouchers promise to figure front and center in any debate relating to education in the Texas Legislature this session. The session doesn’t open for another month and a half, but lawmakers are already talking about what role vouchers will play in the state public school system going forward.
State Rep. Richard Raymond, a Democrat from Laredo, is calling for a Constitutional amendment that would bar the use of taxpayer money to fund education vouchers. Like most opponents of vouchers, Raymond insists that money drained away by vouchers would substantially hobble Texas public schools.
On the other side of the issue is Houston Republican Dan Patrick, who says that vouchers are not about hindering public schools, but about allowing parents more control in deciding how their children are educated. The voucher program would allow parents to take a certain percentage of the per-student state education funding and spend it on tuition for a school of their choice, including private parochial schools.
“To me, school choice is the photo ID bill of this session,” Patrick told the Associated Press in August. “Our base has wanted us to pass photo voter ID for years, and we did it. They’ve been wanting us to pass school choice for years. This is the year to do it, in my view. That issue will do more to impact the future of Texas and the quality of education than anything else we could do.”
Opposition and support for vouchers in Texas don’t always fall neatly along the party lines. State Representative David Simpson, for example – a Republican from Longview – has frequently spoken out against bringing vouchers to the state.
Implementing a voucher program is more complicated than just disbursing a check to every family that signs up. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that in a robust program, private schools are strictly vetted prior to being made eligible to accept voucher students. Legislatures also frequently restrict which students are eligible to receive the grants, usually only accepting those from low-income families or those living near an under-performing school or an under-performing school district.
In some form, voucher programs have been around for over a century, with the first proto-vouchers being enshrined in a 143-year-old Vermont law which required towns that didn’t run their own schools to pay for their local students to attend school elsewhere. The first modern program was created in 1989 in Wisconsin.
The program, called the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, allows students who qualify under certain income guidelines to attend private schools — whether religious or nonreligious — at no charge as long as they are located in the City of Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The department reported the school choice program served 23,198 students in 2011-12.
Currently, there is some form of voucher program operating in 8 states, serving more than 80,000 students during the 2011-2012 academic year.