I have conflicting intuitions about education reform. Like most people who support free enterprise, I agree that competition is healthy and tends to improve overall outcomes. In the context of public education, however, we can’t be cavalier about the fact that competitions involve winners and losers. Some struggling schools may improve under competitive pressure, and those that fail may be replaced by more effective operations, but even if the process ultimately yields a better set of schools, the kids enrolled in the schools that finally fail will have been profoundly disadvantaged by the experience. And I don’t buy the argument that reform advocates are secretly hoping to get rid of “government schools” altogether; I think most reform advocates are in fact trying to improve public education, not end it. But having listened to a lot of testimony over the years, I’m aware that plenty of Texas parents would prioritize their own preferences over policies more likely to maximize the common good.
Plus, as a general matter, legislation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Even if the intentions are honorable, and the underlying principles widely shared, the bill itself may be awkwardly structured. The vouchers proposal that passed on first reading in the Senate this afternoon, for example, is conceptually sound enough but includes one provision which would, I think, effectively defeat the purpose.
The measure, authored by Larry Taylor, parallels one Dan Patrick fought for in 2013, when he was the chair of the Senate Education Committee. Basically, it proposes a tax credit for businesses that agree to allocate the corresponding amount of money to a statewide voucher fund instead. In the first year, up to $100 million in tax credits could be authorized, meaning that some 15,000 students could participate. The amount of tax credits allowed would grow each subsequent year, as would the number of students who could potentially participate in the program. The size of the scholarships would be capped at a proportion of the average statewide per capita spending on public schools—let’s call it about $6,000 a year at first, compared to about $8,000 for a public school student, for simplicity’s sake—meaning the state would save some money on each scholarship student.
The aforementioned bum provision relates to the eligibility criteria for students. To apply, a student must be in foster care, in institutional care, or have a household income not greater than 250 percent of the income guidelines necessary to qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program. At first glance, that sounds admirably egalitarian; it sounds as if these scholarships will go to genuinely disadvantaged students, many of whom are indeed trapped in failing schools. The problem is in the third provision. Per federal guidelines, a family of four with a household income of $44,000 qualifies for reduced lunch. The way this is written, a family of four would therefore be eligible for vouchers if their household income is up to $110,000 a year. But $110,000 is about double the state median income; kids from those households probably already have access to good public schools. And yet realistically those are the kids most likely to be the beneficiaries of such scholarships, if the bill becomes law as written. That’s fine if that’s the goal, but if the goal is to help poor black kids in inner-city Houston and poor Hispanic kids in the Rio Grande Valley, that’s not going to be accomplished by subsidizing yuppies in Plano. It would be better to ratchet down the criteria, so the only students eligible are the ones actually eligible for free or reduced lunch, as about half of all students in Texas public schools are.
With that minor revision, the bill would be a great way for Texas to experiment with a voucher program. Since the state has some five million children enrolled in public schools, the number of students affected would not amount to an accidental overnight overhaul of our extant approach to public education. At the same time, 15,000 students would benefit in a meaningful way. They would also make for a fairly good sample set, and if there is a measurable effect in their educational outcomes, reform advocates would be well positioned to advocate for an expansion of such programs. The tax credits themselves would not create a revenue hole, because the foregone revenue would be accompanied by a commensurate cut in spending requirements. All in all, worth a try.
One other thought, on reflection: the proposal was controversial in 2013, and although it passed the Senate easily enough today, on a mostly party-line vote, it will inevitably elicit more opposition in the House. It’s worth mentioning, then, that the bill may sound more sinister than it actually is. If so, it’s probably because Republicans keep describing it with euphemisms. The funding for the program, in their telling, would not be public money, because it would be generated by a tax credit, and therefore would never be collected by the state in the first place. Similarly, since the vouchers would not be funded by tax revenue, Taylor wants us to call them scholarships.
Both arguments are dubious. “Vouchers” may be controversial, but “scholarships” implies that the program seeks to differentiate between students on the basis of merit or financial need, and the Senate proposal is predicated on the opposite goal: Patrick has argued for years that all children deserve access to a good education; the whole purpose of vouchers is to empower parents, in practice, to differentiate between schools. And obviously a program funded by tax credits is a program funded by the state. Over the long term, I don’t see how it helps Republicans to argue over that point. The argument itself makes it sound like they’re trying to confuse people with gimmicks in an effort to score short-term political points. I realize that scoring such points may be the only thing that matters to many elected officials these days but it’s a little tiresome and dispiriting, especially when the overarching goal is an honorable one.
Or maybe I should put it this way. Patrick and the Senate can take credit for having done something today, but they have to choose their bragging rights. They can take credit for passing a bill that is projected to save the state $135 million in 2020 by cutting public school enrollment. Or they can take credit for giving some 20,000 students across the state of Texas a real and meaningful opportunity that may well change their lives. Either would count as an accomplishment. But the voucher is only good for one.