EDUCATION COMMITTEE HOLDS HOUSTON HEARING ON SCHOOL CHOICE
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony in Houston on Friday, October 13 regarding the feasibility, success and fairness of programs that allow parents to send their children to a school of their choice. School choice programs typically allow parents to choose a different public or private school for their children by subsidizing tuition costs from state money.
David Rowland, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, testified as to the legal precedents set in other states regarding school choice programs. He said that a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that choice programs that use state money do not necessarily violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, provided that private schools in such programs are religiously neutral and offer religious instruction only as part of curriculum. Rowland added that the school choice issue has yet to come before Texas state courts, but there are certain provisions in the Texas Constitution, including barring the use of state money for religious purposes, that could present an obstacle to future state school choice programs.
Dr. Patrick Wolf, a researcher from the University of Arkansas on the issue of school choice programs, presented several benefits of school choice programs used in other states. There are now at least 10 states that offer choice programs to parents. All of these programs are aimed at at-risk student populations, and the programs tend to increase graduation rates, especially among minority or low-income student groups. Parents with children in school choice programs report higher satisfaction with their children's education than other parents. Wolf also said that when faced with competition from private or charter schools, that local public schools tend to increase education quality.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, testified that school choice programs can take desperately needed resources from struggling public schools and put more money in wealthy private schools. She also expressed concern about the lack of accountability and transparency for private schools that take state money. Miller also questioned the validity of data showing higher rates of success for school choice programs, saying private schools "cherry-pick" only the best students from public schools. She pointed to a 2006 study from the U.S. Department of Education showing no difference in success rates for private and public school students when the data is normalized for socio-economic factors.
There is no current legislation for a school choice or voucher program pending, but recommendations from experts testifying at Friday's hearing could be used to craft a bill for the upcoming regular session. Future legislation could encompass not only school choice programs, but also administrative changes to the state's charter school program. The Senate Education committee has scheduled a joint hearing with the Senate Finance committee in Austin on Tuesday, October 17th.