The Lone Star State has entered the dance floor on one of the most important issues in the past decade for our state: school choice. It’s only natural in Texas for that dance to look like the Texas two-step, with two slow steps and two fast steps. Texas has taken the slow steps toward improving school choice, but now it’s time to take the fast steps to empower families.
Texas is not the only state on the school-choice dance floor. Recently, Maine was center stage at the Supreme Court based on its school choice system that provided limited tuition assistance for private schools but excluded religious schools from receiving funding. School choice took a step forward when the Court ruled in Carson v. Makin that religious schools cannot be excluded from receiving government funding simply because of the school’s religious status. While an important ruling, some downplayed its significance, noting the uniqueness of Maine’s school choice system limits the decision’s impact.
However, instead of lamenting that Carson wasn’t an earth-shattering case, we should celebrate the fact that Maine has some sort of school choice system and that parents who wish to send their children to religious schools are no longer excluded from the tuition assistance program. This case couldn’t have arisen in Texas because while Texas is often a trailblazer, Texas lacks any general school choice tuition assistance program. Last year, 18 states initiated new school choice programs while 21 expanded existing options. Texas sat that dance out.
Nevertheless, Texas has made small steps toward choice. First, many education options exist in Texas. Families can choose from public schools, charter schools, online academies, magnet schools, learning pods, private schools, or homeschool options. Second, Texas leaders have recently expressed support for school choice. In January, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his support for adding a parental bill of rights to the Texas Constitution, and he reaffirmed this support in May.
Gov. Abbott, like most Texans, believes that parents should be the primary decision-makers in their child’s education, and educational choices should be readily available to all Texas families. And Texas families are trying to exercise that choice. During the 2020-2021 school year, charter school waitlists reached approximately 60,000 students.
But there are still two huge steps for Texas to take. First, Texas should empower families by funding choice because parents best understand their children’s learning needs. Since there is currently no general statewide system of school choice funding in Texas, Texas’s many education options are available only to those who can afford them. The Texas Legislature should rectify this. It should empower families to choose what’s best for their children by implementing a statewide system of school-choice funding, such as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), that enables families to direct their education dollars to the school of their choice.
Second, Texas should expand educational options by increasing access to quality virtual learning systems. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, students used established virtual learning systems to get quality education from their homes. These virtual schools—unlike the slapdash emergency remote learning that occurred when schools closed during the pandemic—maximize the potential of online learning. But Texas has arbitrarily restricted access to such high-quality online schooling options by cutting off funding for new virtual schools. Instead of supporting any district that wants to establish a high-quality online learning program, the state will fund only those eight districts that established these programs before 2013. This funding cap severely limits quality online schooling options.
The Texas Legislature should therefore establish an ESA program next legislative session to empower parents to choose the best school for their children despite the family’s financial resources. It should also lift the moratorium on funding new online learning programs to enable more students to access quality online education programs that fit their specific needs. Texas has taken two small steps so far; it’s time for it to take two fast steps toward school choice and family empowerment.