Rachel Sheffield, an education research assistant at The Heritage Foundation, writes in the Heartlander that Texas families are demanding more school choice options even as the government is working to provide ever more options for those who would like more control over their child’s academic destiny.
Matthew Barnes, as executive director of the Houston-based Families Empowered, is in a good position to judge the demand, as he spends his days assisting families in finding the best option for the education of their children, among the public, charter and private schools in their neighborhood. He points out that this demand is growing even while the awareness of school choice programs in Texas remains abysmally low. Still, while limited by the information barrier, enough families are finding out that they’re not as doomed by their geography as they might believe.
Waiting lists for charters — which are topping 100,000 students in total — are still a regular part of Texas academic landscape according to the data collected by the Texas Charter School Association. David Dunn, the executive director of TCSA, says that this number has nearly doubled from two years ago.
Private school choice is still not an option in the state, but that could change if the proposal for a voucher program by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst is taken up by the legislature. Some speculate that the proposal will be similar to the one discussed by the state’s Senate Education Committee this summer which would allow families to receive grants of up to 60% of the state’s per-student spending — roughly equal to $5,400 for each student.
A recent Families Empowered survey found various reasons why families were not satisfied with their current school and wanted another. The most common response was a lack of academic quality, at 37.2 percent. Others cited problems with school personnel (14.8 percent) and security, safety and/or discipline problems (10.4 percent). Nearly 18 percent said they did not necessarily know why they were trying to leave their current school.
“They know there’s something better,” Barnes noted.
Although state sponsored vouchers are still in the future, some private organizations have stepped in to fill the gap. The biggest and most well-known is The Star Sponsorship Program, which has been in existence for nearly a decade. Sheffield reports that over 9,000 families applied for SSP scholarships in 1999 with nearly 500 awarded that year.
To receive SSP scholarships, students must be eligible for federal school lunch subsidies by living in low-income households, she said.
“We ask the children to work toward exemplary behavior,” she said: recipients must commit to finishing homework, attending class on time, and maintaining high grades. Meyer says people in her organization have been amazed at the high quality of students in the program. “What has been extremely exciting is to witness the parents that are coming in,” she said. Although she calls SSP a smaller organization, “somehow [parents] seem to find us.”