If I had the choice, would I really choose choice?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I attended the Texas Trib Fest a couple of weeks ago.  One of the most interesting sessions was a panel discussion with three members of the Texas House that was billed as “The War Over School Choice.”   The panel members were James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), James Talarico (D-Austin), and Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio).  They represented the two ends and the middle-ish of the School Choice discussion.  Frank (the Republican) was pro-school choice.  Talarico was fiercely anti, and Gervin-Hawkins was anti, but willing to make some compromises if it would mean getting some movement on other initiatives for improving public schools.  It was a lively discussion for sure.

In this last regular session of the Texas Legislature, the Texas Senate passed SB 8, a bill that would have provided for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), one of the currently popular varieties of school choice. (Here’s a link to my explanation of what was included in the SB 8.)  The Texas House did not pass it, so it has not become law…yet.

This is not the first time the idea of school choice/school vouchers/ESAs has come before the Texas legislature.  Traditionally it is a “no go” in the Texas House because rural Republicans and Democrats band together to oppose it.

This school choice idea is very popular with some Republicans right now, however.  Our current Texas governor is particularly dedicated to the idea. He has called a special session of the legislature with the express purpose of passing a school choice bill, and he has basically threatened Republicans who vote against it, saying that he will have things “teed up” to go after them in the primaries if they don’t mend their uncooperative ways.

This brings me back to the Trib Fest panel …

One of the points that James Frank (the Republican) kept repeating was that “Texas parents want school choice.”  He has some justification for saying this.  The University of Texas conducted a poll using the question: “Do you support or oppose establishing a voucher, educational savings account (ESA), or other “school choice” program in Texas?”  Forty-five percent of the respondents were supportive. Forty-two percent were opposed. Thirteen percent answered, “don’t know/no opinion.”

Despite the poll numbers though, I have some lingering doubts about the premise that “Texas parents want school choice.” For example, I wonder how many of those polled were actually parents, and of those, I wonder how many were economically disadvantaged.

School choice is being offered as a way to rescue children from low-performing schools. If your child is attending a low-performing school, in Waco at least, there is a good chance you are, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), “economically disadvantaged.”

In 2022 (the last year for which we have ratings, so far), TEA did not dish out “D” or “F” ratings since schools were still recovering from the pandemic. Instead, they gently marked any school that was making less than a “C” as “not rated.”   I had to use all of my Sherlockian powers of deduction to figure out that those schools that were marked “not rated” might have made a “D” or an “F” if they had been rated. (We could have a whole conversation about what I think about this A-F ranking system – but I’ll save that for a different post, or ten.)

Three Waco elementary schools were “not rated”: Brook Avenue – 99% economically disadvantaged, J. H. Hines — 99% economically disadvantaged, South Waco Elementary – 97% economically disadvantaged.

Do you think the parents whose children are attending these schools might prefer to send their children to schools that were making an “A” or a “B” instead of (shhhhhh!) a “D” or an “F?”  I’m sure they would.  What parent wouldn’t?

Given that their neighborhood school is making a D or an F, would these parents like to have the money to put their children in a private or parochial school that is supposedly better.  I’m sure they would, what parent wouldn’t?  Providing, of course, it is ENOUGH money to cover tuition and transportation and whatever other expenses might apply.  (And, of course, we don’t really know, which private/parochial schools are better, or how much better, do we? Because private and parochial schools are not subject to the same accountability system as public schools.)

Yes, I imagine those parents would like to have some choices – given that situation.

But, it is my observation that parents, particularly economically disadvantaged parents, have plenty to do and worry about already. Given that, I wonder if “choice” is one of those things that sounds good, but sometimes turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth.

“Economic disadvantage” is a touchy subject.  I don’t think very many people, no matter how little money they may have, like to be identified as “economically disadvantaged.” Also, those of us who have plenty money don’t really like to talk about how much easier we have it.   Awkward as it may be to discuss, however, I do think “economic stability” vs. “economic disadvantage” does matter to this discussion of school choice.

Money may not buy happiness, but it can buy a dependable car or two for example, which could make a big difference when it comes to which school you might choose for your child to attend.   Being “economically disadvantaged” sometimes means that you don’t have much control over your work schedule, which can mean that it’s tough to get the time to shop around for the right private school, or attend “mandatory” parent meetings, or even drop off and pick up your child across town.  I imagine there will be a certain amount of paperwork to fill out to participate in the ESA program – that’s probably on a computer.  Do you have a computer?  Or will you need to go up to the school or the library to use the computer?  All of that takes up time and energy.

It’s certainly not impossible for parents with limited means to do these things, and some would no doubt be willing to figure it out because they think it will be better for their children.

I wonder, though, if what these parents might really rather have is the “choice” to not have to worry about it?  I am not a parent, but I think if I were a parent, that is the “choice” I would rather have.

I think I might prefer having the confidence that my neighborhood school is a good school, rather than the “choice” to spend my time and energy searching for a supposedly good school and re-arranging my life so that my child could go there.

I think I might rather have the “choice” to send my child to the school down the street, knowing that she was going to get a good, solid education, rather than the “choice” to be constantly juggling transportation and time.

I am not a parent, and I am not economically disadvantaged, but even I, lucky as I am, have plenty to do.  I like it when things just work the way they are supposed to, and I don’t have to worry about them.  I flip the switch, the lights come on.  I turn the faucet, the water comes out. I turn the key, the car starts.   I wonder if, given the choice, Texas parents, especially economically disadvantaged parents of children in “low-performing” schools, might prefer for their neighborhood school to be a thing like that – a thing they can just count on without having to worry about it.  I wonder if parents might prefer that kind of dependability to “choice.”

The best I can say about “School Choice” programs like vouchers and ESA’s is that they feel like a defeat to me.  They make me feel like we are giving up on the promise of neighborhood schools (and by extension, maybe the neighborhoods themselves), and just trying to scavenge the parts worth saving.  Is that the choice we want to make?

I think what we really need to be investing our time, money and energy on doing is not “providing choice” – but on making sure neighborhood schools ARE a good choice.   What would that take?  Why aren’t we making that choice?


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  1. Carol Munn on October 8, 2023 at 6:40 pm

    I agree with you, Ashley. Public schools should be improved so that parents, especially economically disadvantaged one, could count on their neighborhood school to be safe as well as sound. What I don’t know is how to make that happen. I believe that if teachers’ salaries were higher, more people would choose to be teachers. Then there could be competition for those jobs which might allow the better teachers to be offered the available jobs. But beyond raising salaries, I don’t have many other ideas on how to improve public schools. And that improvement will be what might make the school choice problem retreat under the bleachers.

    • ashleythornton on October 8, 2023 at 6:52 pm

      That is the hard question for sure…if there is a way to do it, why haven’t we done it yet? I think teacher pay is part of it — as controversial as this Mike Miles guy is in Houston, I think he has some good ideas. I think there needs to be way, way more teacher preparation — one suggestion I have seen batted around is a teacher residency program. Maybe really emphasizing and spending the time to learn trauma informed classroom management techniques. I think there are things we could be doing — my constant frustration here is that we never give anything enough time to see if it will really work…. I don’t know what to do about that.

  2. […] I do not believe it is realistic to think that parents – particularly most parents with very little financial means – can effectively “shop around for the best deal” when it comes to finding a school for their children. (My last post explores this idea a little more.) […]

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