As published in Dallas Morning News, August 31, 2022.
Even as families are enjoying the first weeks of the school year, the challenges facing our education system remain more of the same. Many schools still have teacher vacancies and don’t have subject-certified teachers for vital classes such as biology, math and reading. Mental health challenges still threaten the safety of teachers and students, while school counselors remain difficult to access. Teachers are exhausted, administrators are overwhelmed and parents are frustrated. Our public schools need our attention.
The whispers of school vouchers may seem compelling at first — let public money go to the private sector to try to solve our problems. But while this may help a few select students who already attend private schools by providing voucher funds as subsidies, millions of other students will not have those options for quality education. We need to protect the pathway to college and career for all Texas students. Texas is big and education is expensive. But the Legislature for once, has extra funds to allocate this upcoming session and we can be bold in our demands for change. We do not want these dollars to drive change for a few; we want to improve the quality of education from Lubbock to Corpus Christi, from Beaumont to El Paso.
When addressing public education, every reform passed this legislative session needs to include accountability. Whether addressing student achievement, school safety or parental choice, Texans have the right to know how their own tax money is being spent, that it is being spent effectively and who is being served. For 16 years, Children at Risk has used standardized test scores, economic status, academic growth and college readiness to display how well local schools are carrying out the mandate to educate our children. Our rankings have successfully promoted data analysis at the campus and district level, guided teacher and staff professional development, helped school leadership allocate funds to better serve children and supported changes in strategic planning.
Children at Risk supported the creation of a parent-friendly A-F scale for grading schools, which has created a meaningful dialogue about the state of education in Texas. If public education dollars are reallocated, the receiving institutions need to show student progress just as traditional public schools do. This is something private schools will never do.
Additionally, an accountability system helps ensure Texans that our tax dollars are managed responsibly. Will the state of Texas require tax-subsidized homeschooling parents to administer standardized tests and follow the state-mandated curriculum? Will private schools have the same requirements for “school hardening” as public schools in the post-Uvalde world? Will religious schools be required to provide the basic mental health and special education supports offered by public schools? If these groups become recipients of federal and state dollars, these types of expectations must follow. For every dollar allocated to educational programs next year, we need to make sure there is a system to promote transparency around spending and a system to measure the impact of the proposed program.
There are no quick and easy solutions to decades of under-investment in public education. School vouchers take additional dollars out of our schools with no accountability for quality and student progress, and the price we pay will be far greater than the cost.
Bob Sanborn is president and CEO of Children at Risk, a Texas-based nonprofit focused on research and advocacy for children. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.