Five things I would rather see my legislators talking about than Vouchers & ESAs.

By Ashley Bean Thornton

We all care about education in Texas.  Republicans and Democrats care.  I don’t have kids and I care. Employers care.  Parents have a direct and immediate reason to care.

We all understand that we are better off, directly or indirectly, if children get the kind of education they need to have a chance at a decent job or some way of participating productively in the economy.  We depend on our future voters learning what they need to know to make informed decisions as citizens in our democracy.  We generally wish for an education system that will help our fellow humans get a good start on filling their brains with the tools and ideas they need to build satisfying lives for themselves.

I think we all want that.  I think most of us – most Republicans, most Democrats and most everyone in between or outside of those boxes — want that for all children, wherever they may live, whatever their race, creed or socio-economic status might be.

The question is how to go about doing it.  How much are we willing to pay for it with our tax dollars?  What is the most effective way to spend that money to get the best results?

I can understand that the folks who are supporting vouchers and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are worried that our current public school system is not doing the job very well.  I work in a public school every day, and believe me, I have plenty of concerns myself.  I don’t blame the “voucher-crowd” for being worried, and I respect them for getting well-organized to do something about it.

But…

I don’t think vouchers and ESAs are the best way forward.   I believe these “school choice” initiatives will have negative unintended consequences, similar to the unintended consequences of the basically well-intended “no child left behind” approach signed into law twenty or so years ago.  I think both of these “movements” were/are well-meaning, but will be ultimately disappointing.  It seems to me, they are both attempts to apply the business-minded theory that “competition makes all things better” to a situation where that philosophy does not really apply, at least not in the way these policies have applied it.

I do not believe it is realistic to think that parents – particularly most parents with very little financial means – will be able to realistically “shop around for the best deal” when it comes to finding a school for their children, even if they do have a voucher for some of the tuition in their pockets. (My last post explores this idea a little more.)

I think a better approach is to invest in making sure that neighborhood schools are good schools.

To that end, here are five things I would rather hear my legislators considering than school vouchers/ESAs:

1. Increasing the basic per student allotment in Texas. — The per student allotment in Texas is $6,160 per student. We would need to increase that by $4,000 per student to bring us up to the national average in per student spending.  We may not be able to, or need to, make that big of an increase immediately, but increasing by $1,000 – $2,000 could be a huge help.  Nobody likes paying more in taxes – but this is a crucial investment.  I’m concerned that the current “let’s quit paying property taxes” movement is going to make it difficult to have the kind of schools our children need. The price of everything has gone up, our per student allotment needs to go up to keep up with inflation, plus a little to catch up with the rest of the country.

2. Tying school funding to enrollment instead of attendance. – School financing in Texas is far too complicated to tackle in this blog post, and it probably all needs to be re-examined. One thing, however, could be adjusted pretty easily.  Currently school funding is based on average daily attendance (ADA).  It would be better to base funding on enrollment.  Do we send teachers home and turn off the lights and air conditioning in part of the building when students are absent?  Of course not.  It costs just as much to run the school when 85% of the students are there as it does when 100% of the students are there. Funding based on attendance is probably based on the idea that we need to “incentivize” schools to pursue high attendance. The unintended consequence is to “punish” schools with more economically disadvantaged children.  According to TEA research, children from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent than their peers.  Tying funding to ADA takes funding away from the schools that need it most.  Attendance is crucial to learning, no doubt.  We need to continue to take steps to improve attendance, but not at the expense of more funding for the schools that need it most.

3. Taking action on input from teachers. – Governor Abbott established the “Teacher Vacancy Task Force (TVTF)” in March of 2022. According to the final report, which was released in February of 2023, “The TVTF was comprised of teachers and school system leaders in public education hailing from a variety of school systems and geographies and serving student populations that are representative of the diversity of Texas as well as a wide range of grade-levels and content areas.”  The three big topics covered are compensation, training and support, and working conditions.  The report basically provides a well-considered to-do list of ideas for building up and supporting our workforce of teachers.  I would love to see our legislators working through this list.

4. Getting serious about world class teacher preparation. – Finland is famous for having the best education system in the world, to the point that some of us are sick of hearing how great they are. There are plenty of reasons why we are not like Finland, they are not as diverse…blah, blah, blah.  Even taking all that into consideration, if you haven’t watched “The Finland Pheonomenon,” a fairly short documentary about education in Finland, you should.  The main thing that stood out to me is that the teacher preparation is far, far more thorough than anything I know of in Texas or the U.S.A.  The teacher preparation in Finland is more like the preparation lawyers and doctors get here.  We need that here.  Teaching is at least as hard as being a doctor or a lawyer, and it has at least as much impact on our society.  Making this transition would not be a quick fix, but if we are serious about building a great education system, we need to do it.  Our legislators should be considering how to build this kind of teacher preparation pipeline in Texas.

5. Finding ways to provide wrap-around services to help more economically distressed students succeed in school. – In 2017 the Great Schools organization released a report called the Education Equality Index which focused on figuring out which states were doing the best job educating low-income children.  Three of the cities that they found were doing a good job were located along the Texas border, El Paso, McAllen & Laredo.   What combination of strategies accounts for this success?  The report mentions several ideas worth pursuing. One important strategy is coordinating wrap-around services to address “out of school issues” that affect learning, “…because low-income students constitute a majority of the student body in these cities, instructional strategies, wraparound programs, social-emotional learning approaches, and community partnerships are all aligned explicitly to support low-income students and their learning needs.” (P. 27).  Despite a parent’s best efforts, low-income can create many roadblocks to learning.  Better coordination of existing resources could help students overcome some of those hurdles.  Good examples are right here in our state.  Could our legislators help spread some of these effective practices to other school systems?  I would like to hear them talking about how.

I think school vouchers/ESAs would ultimately benefit only a few students – and not necessarily the students who most need the benefit.  I believe these five ideas, and other ideas that focus on strengthening neighborhood schools for the many, rather than providing “choice” for a few, are a better investment of our tax dollars. I think “educational freedom” is better conceived as freedom from worrying whether or not your child will get a good education at the neighborhood school.


Want to make sure you get all the Dead Dillo posts?  To subscribe to this email list, click here!

Leave a Comment