Texas May Explore Education Savings Accounts

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Members of the Texas Senate are looking into a change that could take the power associated with education away from the state and give it instead to individual parents.

The power they are discussing comes in the form of a school choice program known as Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs.

ESAs will offer parents in the state who are unsatisfied with the public school system the option to receive state money on a debit card, allowing them the ability to pay for other education options such as private schooling, tutors, or community college credits.

In all, five states currently use ESAs.  The Senate Education Committee is looking into what works best in each of those states before it comes forward at the Capitol this week.

A total of $50 billion is set aside in the state budget for education each year.  Critics of ESAs argue that the program might save the state money, but it will not help to fix the current issues in the public education system.

“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can call a voucher something else, but it’s still a voucher,” said Charles Luke of the Coalition for Public Schools, which opposes using public funds to support private and religious schools. “We need to invest in our community schools rather than create a completely separate, parallel system and expand government.”

The coalition is pushing for all taxpayer money to remain in the public school system.

“These programs, by their sheer design, will take money away from our public schools, and our public schools continue to be woefully underfunded and our teachers continue to be underpaid,” said Sen. José Menéndez.

However, a researcher and professor at the University of Arkansas presented evidence during testimony at the Capitol suggesting ESAs do in fact benefit the overall education system while saving money for the state at the same time.

Dr. Patrick Wolf, who has researched school choice programs across the country, has found data showing that those states who make use of these programs have higher graduation rates, higher test scores both in public and private schools, as well as lower crime rates.

Wolf also addressed the idea that ESAs only benefit wealthier students, saying that the research he conducted shows that “in terms of participation in private school choice programs, it’s overwhelmingly people of color and low-income kids.”

Private schools are not required to offer special education programs, nor do they need to accept every student who applies.

When they meet to discuss possible school choice legislation, the state Senate Committee will consider not only the creation of education savings accounts, but also tax credit scholarships.

These scholarships would offer tax credits to businesses that help to fund scholarships to give students the opportunity to attend private school, writes Robert T. Garrett for The Dallas Morning News.

Both ideas were proposed by Republican lawmakers at the last legislative session, writes Julie Chang for My Statesman.

There has not been a formal bill filed for ESAs in the state of Texas as of yet.  Bills cannot be filed in the state legislature until after the November election.