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Untangling facts from spin: The financial impact of school vouchers and ESAs on Texas

 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott championed state-funded Education Savings Accounts that can be used to pay for private schools at a Parent Empowerment Night in Temple on Feb. 20, 2023. Central Texas Christian School hosted the event.
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Office of Governor Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott championed state-funded Education Savings Accounts that can be used to pay for private schools at a Parent Empowerment Night in Temple on Feb. 20, 2023. Central Texas Christian School hosted the event.

An old fight over school vouchers is heating up this legislative session in Texas. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made private school choice a top priority.

This go around, the proposed vehicle for distributing the money is called an Education Savings Account rather than a voucher — the money would go to a family to spend on tuition or home school curriculum instead of being sent directly to a private school.

But, lost in the ideological spin over whether or not taxpayer dollars should be allowed to be spent on private schools, is something that should be at the heart of the matter: the financial impact.

Abbott has drummed up support for private school choice across the state since January, delivering speeches at Parent Empowerment Nights hosted by private Christian schools, and reiterating key phrases during his State of the State Address in San Marcos.

“No one knows better how a child can flourish than their parent. Without education freedom, parents are hindered in helping their own child,” Abbott saidat Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi. “That must change, and it must change this legislative session.”

“We believe in freedom in the state of Texas,” Abbott said to applauseat the Central Texas Christian School in Temple.

Abbott’s definition of education freedom is universal access to a state-funded Education Savings Account that can be used to pay for private school.

“Now is the time to expand ESAs to every child in the state of Texas,” Abbott said in Corpus Christi.

Every child includes children already enrolled in private school. When states create universal programs like this, most families that end up using them were already able to afford private school, said Jack Schneider, an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

“And that, of course, makes sense,” Schneider said. “It'd be financially foolish for them not to take advantage of the fact that they can just pull dollars right out of the state treasury and stick them in their own bank accounts to compensate themselves for the tuition that they've been paying.”

Private school choice advocates often say that funding for schools should follow the child. They argue that vouchers and ESAs don’t divert money from public schools because the money is just following the child. But that argument doesn’t hold up when children who were never in public school are eligible for ESAs, Schneider explained.

“In this case, money actually does not follow children who are in the public schools alone. It also will go to children who are not presently in the system. And those dollars will not be made up,” he said.

Even when a child does leave public school, Schneider said the school’s costs don’t scale down easily.

“How do you get rid of a fraction of a teacher? How do you close a fraction of the building or get rid of a fraction of a coach?” he asked. “These are questions that schools and districts will have to wrestle with.”

Most states with voucher-like programs started out small — targeted to students with disabilities or low-income families. But in the past few years, Schneider said more and more students have become eligible.

In Arizona, most students in the state’s new universal program were already paying for private school before they had state funding.In New Hampshire, nearly 90% have never attended public school.

Even in Missouri, where you’re only eligible for the state’s new tax-credit scholarship if you’re transferring from public school or just starting out in kindergarten, 65% of participants have never attended public school.

Stats like this don't sit right with Texas public education advocates like Michelle Smith with Raise Your Hand Texas.

“The great irony here is that our funding system for Texas is one of the lowest in the country,” Smith saidduring a conversation on TPR’s "The Source".

Records from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Census’s Annual Survey of School System Finances place Texas in the bottom 10 states for per student funding.

“It would be really important for the state to actually fund our kids that are in our public schools before they launched off into a conversation about billions of dollars leaving the state taxpayers’ pockets to go to families and private schools,” Smith said.

But some arguments made by opponents of school vouchers are easy for supporters to poke holes in too.

When it comes to the claim that programs like this defund public schools, Abbott said in Temple that "under this school choice program, all public schools will be fully funded for every student the same way they are now."

He can say that because state lawmakers decide what it means to be fully funded.

Lately, Abbott’s been going a step further — claiming ownership of the Texas Legislature’s 2019 education overhaul.

“I have provided more funding for public education than any governor in the history of our state,” Abbott also said in Temple.

But that was four years ago. And even with that boost,39 states still spend more per student than Texas.

This year, Abbott pledged to increase money for public schools and dedicate state funds for parents to use at private schools. That can seem doable with a $33 billion surplus, but Texas won’t always have a surplus.

Using public dollars for private schools, by default, means there's less state funding to use elsewhere.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Camille Phillips covers education for Texas Public Radio.