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Skepticism over East Texas private school tuition assistance persists despite push from leaders

 The Grace Community campus in Tyler on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe
/
The Texas Tribune
The Grace Community campus in Tyler on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other conservatives say families need options to escape “woke” education in public schools. East Texas parents and school leaders say the national talking points are off base.

TYLER — On a Thursday evening in March, parents and community leaders inside Grace Community School erupted into applause as Gov. Greg Abbott demanded the Texas Legislature protect parents’ rights.

Outside the school — one of the largest private Christian schools in East Texas — Abbott’s visit elicited jeers. More than a dozen public school advocates and parents held signs in protest and offered a pro-public-school message to any passersby who would listen.

“We’re out here protesting Gov. Abbott because he’s trying to take away money from our public schools and give them to these private Christian schools, and I don’t think that’s right,” Cody Grace, a public school parent and former Democratic nominee for the Texas House, said in a video posted to Twitter during the protest he helped organize.

That night in Tyler is emblematic of the debate taking place inside the Texas Legislature this year. Abbott has thrown his support behind parents’ rights and “school choice,” a catchall term for policies that allow parents to send their kids to a school different from their assigned public school.

Many rural lawmakers remain wary of such policies — even as supporters dangle additional money for their schools.

The governor’s push for education savings accounts is part of his efforts to give parents more rights and to fight what he calls a “woke” agenda in public schools. Smith County, where Tyler sits, is home to 64 public schools, and Tyler has one of the largest concentrations of private religious schools outside of the state’s major metropolitan areas, according to data analyzed by The Dallas Morning News.

School leaders — already wary that such a dramatic expansion of school choice would drain their limited financial resources — and some parents in Tyler and the surrounding communities say Abbott is driving a false narrative. There is no indication of a “woke” agenda in the region’s public schools, they say.

At least one rural school leader is going as far as saying that if an education savings account policy becomes law, taxpayer dollars could be used for true indoctrination at religious schools.

“Their job is to spread Christianity,” Stan Surratt, superintendent of Lindale Independent School District said about Christian schools like Grace Community School. “That’s not the problem. The problem is, you shouldn’t use state funding for that.”

 Stan Surratt, superintendent of Lindale Independent School District, outside of Lindale High School on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe
/
The Texas Tribune
Stan Surratt, superintendent of Lindale Independent School District, outside of Lindale High School on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

Senate Bill 8 is the leading school-choice policy proposal this legislative session. It would give parents who opt out of public schools the option to receive up to $8,000 of taxpayer money per student. Students who are currently enrolled in a public school or who are entering prekindergarten or kindergarten for the first time would be eligible for the program. The dollars could be used for private school tuition at an accredited private school, tutoring or other education-related expenses such as textbooks.

The legislation also includes restrictions on classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity and lays out a parental bill of rights.

The bill passed the Senate on Thursday and faces a tough road to final passage in the state House, which approved a largely symbolic amendment to the state budget Thursday that limits state money from going to "school vouchers or other similar programs."

To overcome resistance in the lower chamber, the bill seeks to address concerns from rural lawmakers by protecting smaller school districts from any funding losses. School districts with fewer than 20,000 students — including the Tyler Independent School District — would receive $10,000 for every student who signs up for an education savings account and leaves the school district. An amendment to the bill that was passed on Thursday extended the length of time that districts would get that money from two to five years.

Schools in Texas are largely funded based on the number of students who attend the school. Losing a student to a private school means lost revenue. And those funding losses could be particularly devastating for small school districts with less fungible budgets.

And public school leaders argue that students who are home-schooled, a system that is largely unregulated in Texas, could receive a subpar education and then return to the public school system behind their peers.

“I think that’s the scary part for the entire state,” said Surratt, whose school district sits about 15 miles north of Tyler in a town with just over 6,000 people. “You could create a whole group of students that are not being well educated and severely damage them and their family for many, many years.”

Home-school advocates and private school leaders point to data showing that students who choose to enroll in nonpublic school options have strong academic outcomes. According to a national survey, most families that choose to home-school in the U.S. say they selected that option because of concerns with the environment of other schools.

Indoctrination

When Jay Ferguson got a call from Abbott’s office asking if the governor could visit Grace Community School, Ferguson, the school’s headmaster, said yes.

“It was an opportunity to showcase our school,” Ferguson said. “And so we said ‘great.’”

Grace is the largest of several private Christian schools in Tyler, serving about 1,500 students from eight weeks old through 12th grade. Teachers are trained to teach their coursework through a Christian lens by, for example, integrating discussions of how to live a good life according to the Bible with analysis of works of literature like the “Odyssey.”

Bible scriptures decorate classroom walls. Students attend a chapel service four days a week. In the high school gymnasium where Abbott spoke, the Texas flag hangs beside banners celebrating the school’s athletic accomplishments. The words “Glory to God” are emblazoned on the floor.

 Jay Ferguson, headmaster at Grace Community School, a private Christian school in Tyler, poses inside the halls of the high school campus on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.
Ana Conejo
/
The Texas Tribune
Jay Ferguson, headmaster at Grace Community School, a private Christian school in Tyler, poses inside the halls of the high school campus on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.

Before Abbott spoke, the school choir performed, and the audience heard from school parent Ricky Garner, who is also a local pastor in Tyler, as well as a kindergarten teacher who shared the impact the religious school has had on her own life.

Garner said his first three children attended public schools and his fourth child is a high school sophomore at Grace.

“All of those experiences were extremely positive,” he said. “But when the latest addition came to our family 16 years ago, we started to ponder and pray about the possibility for a Christian education for him.”

He added that he believes society is better off when parents have options for their children’s education.

Abbott drew applause from the crowd after expressing concern about the way public education has changed in Texas. Abbott attended public school in Longview, about 40 miles away from Tyler, where he said he was “taught the basics” and “inspired by our country’s founding and how it stands apart from the rest of the world as the beacon for liberty and opportunity.”

Now, he said, parents are upset by what is taught in schools.

“Schools should not be pushing woke agendas. Our schools are for education, not for indoctrination,” Abbott said.

Those who disagreed with Abbott’s message said the event appeared to be a political stunt that Abbott needed to do to prepare for a national run for office.

“It’s a political thing, and they are misleading Texans,” Surratt, the superintendent of Lindale ISD, said.

Since January, Abbott has visited about a dozen Christian private schools across the state for “Parent Empowerment'' nights. The visits are part of his larger push to pass a school-choice measure this session, which he made an emergency item. A spokesperson for Abbott did not explain how schools were selected for the visits and said school choice is widely supported. The office pointed to a poll of 1,200 people conducted by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, which found that a majority of Texans, including those in rural counties, support tax-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Parents of public school students in Tyler and nearby districts said the so-called woke agenda that has been central to Republican talking points across the U.S. doesn’t exist in East Texas, one of the more conservative parts of the state with many close-knit religious communities.

“I know in East Texas, we are still fairly sheltered,” said Adrianne Miller, PTA president for Rice Elementary School in Tyler and a former high school biology teacher at Tyler Legacy High School, previously known as Robert E. Lee High School. “A lot of what you see on the news that makes people afraid of public education is not happening in East Texas.”

The day before Abbott’s visit, Tyler ISD held a press conference at which several superintendents and school board leaders of districts around Tyler lambasted Abbott’s push. They said sending state dollars to private institutions goes against conservative values of limited government intrusion and fiscal conservatism.

Wade Washmon, president of the Tyler ISD school board, expressed frustration with a policy that would allow state dollars to fund religious institutions while public schools are legally prohibited from advancing particular religious views.

“Why not just allow Tyler ISD to have a Christian choice school that’s measured by the same educational standards as all other schools, instead of sending taxpayer dollars to places they have never been?” Washmon said.

 Jes Adams in the backyard of her home in Tyler on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe
/
The Texas Tribune
Jes Adams in the backyard of her home in Tyler on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

The legislation does raise questions about whether education savings accounts violate the Texas Constitution because it would divert public funds to private religious schools. In an opinion released earlier this month, Attorney General Ken Paxton concluded that education savings accounts do not violate the state constitution. He cited United States Supreme Court cases which have set that precedent.

Despite the programs’ apparent legality, some public school leaders and parents said they still find the measure inappropriate and the governor’s comments about “indoctrination” in public schools hypocritical.

“It’s interesting that he keeps saying ‘indoctrination,’ but he’s saying it at a private Christian school,” said Jes Adams, a 37-year-old mother who has two middle-school-aged children in Tyler. Adams was among the parents who protested Abbott’s event at Grace Community School. “It feels very much like he’s saying that Christianity is the way you’re supposed to go, and that anything that deviates from it is indoctrination.”

Cost to public schools

Public school superintendents and dozens of school boards across the state have come out against the legislation. It would come at a cost to public schools because students will leave the district and take dollars with them.

Whether that would actually occur in rural East Texas is not yet clear. While some parents may want to take advantage of an education savings account, the funds might be insufficient to cover the costs of tuition. The education savings account would give parents up to $8,000 per year per child, and the average private school tuition at accredited private schools in Texas is close to $10,000.

At Grace, the cost of tuition for families who don’t qualify or apply for financial aid is $16,159 for a high school student. Those who apply and qualify for aid could pay somewhere between $9,695 to $16,159 per high school student.

More than two thirds of students who attend Tyler ISD, which serves about 18,200 students, are economically disadvantaged, which means the student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch or other public assistance.

“The majority of the students, even if you hand them that $8,000, that doesn’t fully cover tuition, meals, transportation or the fees associated with extracurricular activities,” said Miller, whose children attend Rice Elementary School in Tyler.

Private schools in Tyler also have limited seats and may not be able to immediately accommodate an influx of students. Private schools often have waitlists. At Grace, Ferguson plans to talk to his board about how many more students the school could feasibly take on. He estimated that the increase in students from an education savings account program would not be more than 200 students.

“We are not an existential threat to the public schools in a city that continues to grow,” Ferguson said.

But public school leaders in rural areas of Smith County and across East Texas worry that even if they lose a few students to an education savings account program, that could have dire consequences.

 Jamie Holder, deputy superintendent of Lindale ISD, in the meeting room at the Lindale ISD Administration Building on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe
/
The Texas Tribune
Jamie Holder, deputy superintendent of Lindale ISD, in the meeting room at the Lindale ISD Administration Building on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

In Lindale, the school district is the largest employer in town, with about 750 workers. Deputy superintendent Jamie Holder said the district has strong academic outcomes, and he is confident that students would remain in the district instead of driving into Tyler. But there are no guarantees.

“We might have a whole flock of kids go to Tyler,” Holder said. “I don’t want to believe that and I’ll be shocked if we do, but it can happen.”

Holder is more concerned about rural districts that immediately surround Tyler. Those include districts such as Chapel Hill ISD, which has an elementary school just around the corner from Grace, and Whitehouse ISD that is just southeast of Tyler. Superintendents of both of those districts attended the press conference held the day before Abbott’s event in Tyler and released statements against a school-choice policy.

The bill appears to try and alleviate the fears of rural districts by leaving them fully funded for a certain period of time. But public school leaders wonder what will happen after that time runs out.

“You can get to the point where you would possibly have to start (firing) teachers, and then your class sizes would go up,” said Brandon Dennard, superintendent of Red Lick ISD in Northeast Texas. He added that when schools lose teachers, they must cut programs that add enrichment to the school system. If the bill passes, he said, small school districts would need to spend time finding ways to save dollars to make up for potential losses in the future.

Home schooling on the rise

In the most rural areas of Texas, few if any private school options exist. In those areas, parents could still utilize the education savings account dollars if they were to choose to home-school their children, a method of education that has been growing in popularity in Texas, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Smith County, 527 students withdrew from public schools and switched to home schooling for the 2020-21 school year, according to data analyzed by the Texas Home School Coalition, and more than 6,000 have made that switch since 1997. That data only tracks withdrawals from public schools after seventh grade, so the total number across K-12 could be higher.

Jeremy Newman, vice president of policy and engagement for the Texas Home School Coalition, said an education savings account could help eliminate some of the financial barriers to home schooling, which include the actual cost of materials and a parent’s lost income if they choose to leave the workforce to home-school.

Some private schools offer a “university model,” which combines home schooling with traditional schooling. At Grace University, which operates within Grace Community School, students come to school twice a week for in-person instruction from a teacher. They learn from home the rest of the days using instructional materials provided by the school.

 First: The Grace Community School campus in Tyler. Last: A billboard in Tyler on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe
/
The Texas Tribune
First: The Grace Community School campus in Tyler. Last: A billboard in Tyler on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

The program began with 14 students during the 2017-18 school year and it has since grown to 73 students. The school’s leaders anticipate having 100 students for the 2023-24 school year.

“I loved the idea of having my kids home with me the majority of the time, but not having to take on all of the responsibilities of lesson planning and coming up with curriculum,” said Cortney O’Kelley, who has four children, two of whom attend Grace University.

O’Kelley said she chose the school because she valued a Christian education and wanted more control over what her kids were taught.

Public school leaders said they are most worried about parents who take on home schooling without having the commitment or skill set to do so. They say that if their children then return to the public school having fallen behind, it’ll be the job of the public school to catch them back up. Data from the Texas Education Agency shows that some students who leave for home schooling do re-enroll in public schools.

“You could have parents potentially pulling their kids out to get access to the funds, and then do very little education,” Surratt said.

The bill includes language that prohibits parents from directly receiving any dollars from the education savings accounts. Instead, the dollars have to flow through an approved education service provider, which cannot be directly related to the student.

Home schooling is not heavily regulated in Texas. The only requirements are that the child’s learning include physical or online materials such as textbooks and worksheets, and that the curriculum includes reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and “good citizenship.”