Texas’ legislature is poised to approve the boldest school privatization program in the country. This is what happens when you place a mildly deranged radio host in a state’s most powerful elected office.
Sending public school students to private religious schools may not seem like a ticket to a well-educated citizenry prepared for 21st century demands. That’s ok. Those are not the goals of this program. Legislators are looking for ways to save money and rescue Texas children from the godless influence of science, history, and empirical knowledge.
There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about school vouchers. Thirteen states plus DC already have programs that let students attend private institutions with public funding under some limited circumstances. What makes Texas’ proposal special is its ambitious scope and its potential to remove the last major edifice of public capital in Texas.
Texas’ privatization proposal is based on two separate bills. One bill creates a right to attend private schools funded by vouchers. The second bill creates the funding structure.
Tea Party Senator Donna Campbell is the sponsor of SB 276. That bill establishes a right for students to opt out of public schools and take with them a voucher that funds their private education. Then it starts getting weird.
Campbell’s plan will only pay 60% of what the state was spending for that student’s public education. Common sense finally triumphs here over the demands of pointy-headed accountants. Want cheaper schools? Give them less money.
Campbell’s bill also works another little bit of magic. No government money will be spent on the program. Kinda…
Her bill stipulates that “Money from the available school fund and federal funds may not be used for reimbursement under this section.” So how are these vouchers going to be funded? Students aren’t the only people who would be opting out of the public school system under this program.
Campbell’s SB 276 has a twin. Funding for this program is delivered by SB 642, sponsored by Houston’s own Senator Paul Bettencourt. His bill creates an unusual new private entity called an “Educational Assistance Organization” (EAO).
An EAO would be a private charity with a twist. Any “taxable entity” making a donation to the EAO could get a full credit for their donation against their franchise tax liability, up to 50% of their total tax liability. All funding for private school vouchers would have to come from an EAO.
Bettencourt’s bill is what makes this approach truly radical. These two bills would not merely privatize schools. They would privatize the school funding system as well, creating an entire parallel world free from the liberal horrors of a real education infrastructure. Taxpayers could simply exit the existing public school funding system in favor of their own private school funding entities which they control entirely.
Scope of the program is limited under these two bills, at least for now, in order to make this a “pilot program.” Current versions of the bills would cap the total funding for the state’s EAO’s to $100 million. EAO’s would only be allowed to grant vouchers (the bill calls them “scholarships”) to students whose families earn less than about $60,000 a year. The program would not extend into rural school districts.
EAO’s would not be able to designate which kinds of schools they would fund, but that constraint comes with a Texas-sized loophole. There are virtually no constraints or review over which students the EAO might select for scholarships. What is blocked by one hand is allowed by the other.
So, let’s review. Texas’ proposed school reform would, at least on a limited scale for now, allow taxpayers to opt out of paying taxes to public schools in order to direct their contributions to EAO’s. Those entities would decide which students to fund in private schools, with no constraints on sending students to religious academies and no oversight on which students they fund.
If expanded, this offers a Texas’ religious fundamentalists a huge achievement. They could finally destroy their most hated public institution – the schools. This proposal would gradually starve the public schools of their revenue stream, further cutting the amount that the state pays after years of careful under-funding. Meanwhile it would leave the public schools trapped under their existing infrastructure and mandates, a trap that would finally finish off the beast.
Undersized vouchers would fail to deliver enough funding to support a competent private education. Affluent families would get to take the money and run, receiving a state subsidy which they could combine with their family own contributions to pay for a reasonably good private education. Middle income families who can’t afford to pay above the voucher value would be left in the lurch, trapped between a collapsing public school system and a collection of cheap, storefront Christian madrassas.
A new generation of young people will be spared from learning about their history or discovering anything about the natural world that might challenge their religious assumptions. They’ll be ignorant, bigoted, and reliably pious, which this legislature will see as a big fat win.
The roots of this concept are perhaps even worse than the shape of the plan itself. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision striking down racial discrimination in schools, Georgia passed a constitutional amendment in 1954 allowing their legislature to privatize the entire school system. They never took that radical step, but the law remained in place until Georgia introduced a new constitution in 1982.
One of the architects of Texas’ current plan is Arthur Laffer, a man who has manufactured a successful career out of being wrong about everything. He became famous for formulating what George Bush, Sr. famously called “voodoo economics.” Laffer most recently used his policy voodoo to rip the bottom out of Kansas’ state finances. People are still listening to this guy because results don’t matter in politics.
It isn’t clear whether the current proposals can gain enough support to pass in this session. The Senate has already approved the plan, but its future in the House is uncertain.
What is clear is that Texas’ experiment with radical Neo-Confederate government is reaching a crucially painful stage and there is no relief in sight. This disastrous and bizarre proposal may fail this year, but there is nothing to stop it from emerging again and again until it, something even worse, finally passes. Elections have consequences and there are no signs of Texas elections delivering sanity any time soon.