Mr. Chairman and Senators:

My name is Michael Barba and I’m testifying on behalf of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in support of ESAs.

We support parent empowerment because we believe—in line with United States law—that parents are the first and primary educators of their children. Parents have a direct and personal responsibility for their children’s good. Examples on slide 3 of their educational responsibilities include:

  1. Surrounding their children with good influences;
  2. Supporting their children’s teachers & school to improve their learning;
  3. Forming their children’s judgement with regard to what is true, good, and beautiful; and
  4. Removing their children from an environment if it is detrimental or inadequate

The state’s role is to support parents, not replace them, in fulfilling these responsibilities. These responsibilities give rise to rights shown on slide 4. Specifically, parents have a right to:

  1. Transparency: know what their children are taught and why;
  2. Quality: an education that prepares their children for success;
  3. Respect: when concerns arise; and
  4. Choice: in what and where their children are

Our team has met thousands of parents across Texas. We often hear from opponents of parent empowerment: “Parents already have choice.” We would be happy to share many stories with you showing that this is not true.

And the fact of the matter is that the data confirm what parents have been saying.

Slide 5 shows magnet school applications and acceptances. The vast majority—over 75%—of students who apply to mag- net schools are denied; at that rate, ISD magnet schools have a lower acceptance rate than every university in Texas except Rice. In addition, ISD policies (ex. FDA(LOCAL)) ensure that students are vetted based on academics, discipline, and attendance. Through local policies, the students who are often most in need of an option are denied one.

In contrast, Texas charter schools are open enrollment. Unlike ISDs, they don’t filter children’s applications based on academics, discipline, or attendance. But as slide 6 shows, there are far more applications than available seats: over 66,500 children are on waitlists to attend a charter school; this is a 20% increase compared to 2 years ago.

Regarding accredited private schools: the number of these schools has declined by 10% over the last 8 years. Slide 7 shows the number of schools in the top 5 metro areas and in non-metro areas. Slide 13 shows these data for all 25 Texas metro areas. We have talked to many parents, and they want these options, but they simply cannot afford them.

Thank you very much for your time and for your efforts to improve Texas education for all 6.4 million Texas children.

Turning now to ESAs, slide 10 shows the estimated take up rates for an ESA program in the first five years of operation. We estimate a range of 2 to 6.6; with a universal ESA for all 6.4 million school-age children in Texas, about 57,000 to 288,000 students would participate in year one. However, this is subject to appropriations and you appropriated enough funds for about 50,000 students to participate. In such a case, we recommend prioritizing disabled and low-income students.

Such a program would substantially benefit students, as slide 11 summarizes. Benefits found by studies of choice program in the 31 other states include:

  1. Higher reading and math proficiency, especially for low-income children;
  2. Accelerated learning;
  3. Decreased absences, suspensions, and convictions;
  4. Increased graduation rates; and
  5. Increased college attainment.

In particular, I want to underscore the first point: 20 years ago, Florida’s low-income students ranked 33rd in reading and 27th in math on NAEP. Today they rank number one in both reading and math.

Finally, choice looks different in different communities. As slide 12 summarizes, we expect that rural families will make more customized purchases, spending less on tuition and more on instructional materials. At the same time, we expect the number of private schools to increase substantially. In Florida, the number of private options has doubled over the last 20 years. In the one pager included on the right side of your packet, there are links to videos of public-school teachers who were born and raised in the country, moved to the city to teach, and saw the Florida ESA as an opportunity to open schools in their hometowns. Rural Texas has a lot to offer, but workforce readiness and educational opportunities are a struggle. As a result, 157 of our counties have a declining school-age population. Other states show what is possible in rural communities through parent empowerment.