CBS7 SPECIAL REPORT: “School choice” divides educators and legislature

School choice, or school vouchers, are an emergency item in Austin this legislative session. Does Governor Abbott’s plan empower parents, or harm public education?
CBS7 SPECIAL REPORT: “School choice” divides educators and legislature
Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 2:42 PM CDT
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ODESSA, Texas (KOSA) - “Education freedom” or “school choice” is one of Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency items this legislative session. It’s become one of the most divisive issues in the legislature, transcending party lines. So, what exactly is school choice? And how would Senate Bill 8 affect education in Texas as we know it? CBS7′s Mary Kate Hamilton dove into the issue to explain.

“The solution to all of this is to empower parents to choose the school that’s right for them, and that’s what we will pass this legislative session here in Austin, Texas,” Governor Abbott said at a “parent empowerment” rally this year.

Senate Bill 8 allows families to use taxpayer money to send their children to private school, homeschool, or even a charter school. Governor Abbott says he’s putting power back into parents’ hands. Public education advocates say it harms public education.

“Anything that is going to divert money from public schools and the resources that our kids have access to, we’re going to come out strongly in opposition to that,” Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri said.

Even the mere term “school choice” could be misleading, according to opponents of the bill.

“We’ve always had school choice,” Big Spring Superintendent Jay McWilliams said. “I have no problem if someone as a parent decides ‘I think it’s best for my son or daughter to stay home. I’m going to homeschool them.’ I have no problem with that.”

“We are supporters of parents having choices. In fact we call ourselves a school choice,” Dr. Muri said. “But what we see happening in our state today is school vouchers.”

One of the biggest questions surrounding school choice initiatives is that of transparency. Tax-funded public schools are required to adhere to strict educational and financial guidelines... think STAAR testing, for example. Private schools, even if given public dollars through Senate Bill 8, would not.

“The tax dollars that I pay would be going to an entity and I wouldn’t know anything about it. What are they teaching? How are they held accountable? Are they good? Are they an A, are they a C? Are they an F?” Dr. Muri said. “There should be a whole lot of accountability strings attached to those dollars, just like we have accountability strings.”

Additionally, private schools wouldn’t have to accept all students, or provide resources for students with intellectual or physical disabilities.

“Let’s accept all kids. If they live in your area, let’s accept them. Then we’re on a level playing field, ok? Now let’s go,” McWilliams said.

Senate Bill 8 proposes that parents could receive $8000 per child in taxpayer dollars to go towards alternative, non-public schooling. So how does that directly affect public schools?

“I’ll give you an example. A third grade classroom has 25 children. We receive the funding for those 25 children and we pay the salary of the teacher. If two of those students transitioned to a private school environment, $16,000 would leave ECISD and transition to that private school. But we would still have to pay the salary of that teacher that serves that 23 students now in that third grade classroom,” Dr. Muri said.

Governor Abbott says his education freedom initiative does not mean he has forgotten public education. But he says parents should have a say in fighting against what he describes as a “woke agenda.”

“There’s no reason why any students should have a woke agenda pushed on them. Our schools are for education, not indoctrination,” Governor Abbott said.

As for West Texas, Big Spring Superintendent Jay McWilliams says liberal indoctrination is not a top concern.

“Is that an issue for us in Big Spring? No. Has it been an issue? No. Has it ever been brought to my attention? No. Most of West Texas I don’t think it’s a big issue,” McWilliams said.

For public school advocates, increased funding to public schools should be top priority, and parents who choose to send their children to private school should do so without using public dollars.

“We have a lot of work just to do within our public education system, let alone create a new, parallel system with no accountability,” Bob Popinski of Raise Your Hand Texas said.

The Senate Education Committee has voted to advance SB 8, 10-2. The bill will now go to the Senate floor for a vote. Public education lobbyists tell CBS7 they believe it could very likely pass in the Senate... and they hope to stop it in the House.

The Senate Education Committee has also voted to approve Senate Bill 9, which seeks to provide pay raises for teachers, increase some funding for classrooms, and give free pre-k education to children of teachers in districts where it is provided. That bill will also go to the Senate floor for a vote. CBS7 will continue to follow this legislative session.

Senate Bill 8:

Raise Your Hand Texas’s stance on School Vouchers:

More on Senate Bill 8: Senate Bill 8 is a sweeping education bill. While this bill does provide an education savings fund to give $8,000 per student to choose alternative, private education, it also proposes stricter legislation on the ways gender identity and sexual orientation are taught in schools. Parents would also be notified of any changes in their child, be it emotional, mental or physical. The Bill would also make schools build a parent portal for parents to have more access to their child’s curriculum. Lastly, it would ban lessons that are not age or developmentally “appropriate.”

FULL LIST OF EMERGENCY ITEMS THIS LEGISLATIVE SESSION: Cutting property taxes, ending COVID restrictions, education freedom, school safety, ending “revolving door bail,” securing the border, fighting the fentanyl crisis.