“School Choice” and Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs)
The 88th Texas Legislature's regular session began on January 10th and will continue until May 29th. During this session, the state's two-year budget and other significant legislation will be determined. Governor Greg Abbott and other prominent members of the Texas Republican Party have identified "school choice" as a priority for this legislative session. Abbott has been touring the state to rally support for "parental empowerment" through state funding of Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs). We urge Texas legislators, especially those in the House, to deny SB8 or any other legislation that includes a school voucher program when formally proposed in the current legislative session. There are many red flags from other states that have utilized a vouchers, including potentially harmful effects on individual students such as those in rural communities, from low-income households, and students with disabilities, as well as the high financial and long-term costs.
Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB8) differs from previous "school choice" policies by circumventing the "school voucher" or "charter" systems; instead, SB8 utilizes Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) to distribute funds up to $10,500 directly to eligible Texans for the purposes of paying for private school tuition, or other education-related expenses such as homeschooling, tutoring, or books. On April 6th, the House voted 86-52 to prohibit the spending of public funds on "school vouchers or other similar programs," signaling opposition to ESAs but to a lesser degree than it has in past years (Fine, 2023).
In addition to proposing ESAs, various iterations of SB8 this session have also proposed consequential curricular changes. The version of SB8 passed by the Senate included a provision restricting discussions of sex and gender in schools, potentially censuring such topics as women’s suffrage in high school history courses. The current, House version of the bill proposes standardized testing reforms, including the new Texas Success Initiative Assessment (TSIA) which would be administered three times per year starting in 2027.
“School Choice” Policies: Red Flags from Other States
Many states have adopted "school choice" programs, including the provision of school vouchers, which have been implemented in various approaches in the last few decades. Many of these states (including Louisiana, Washington DC, Indiana, and Ohio) have since rescinded these policies for reasons that are not fully understood. The evidence that "school choice" programs improve student learning outcomes is ambiguous at best when students are measured solely on their aggregate performances on standardized assessments. For example, in a meta-analysis of 92 studies on school-choice policies, it was found that, in aggregate, these policies had only a "very small" positive effect on student achievement (Jabbar et al., 2022).
While such aggregated evidence suggests that voucher programs have very little, if any, positive effects on academic outcomes, there is substantial evidence across state contexts to suggest that students who attend voucher-eligible schools are found to underperform, have low achievement outcomes, and fail in one or more grades (i.e., Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2015; Dynarski & Nichols, 2017; Mills & Wolf, 2017). Knowing that “school choice” programs have been shown to be harmful for some students, and not knowing if and when they are beneficial to others (Zhao, 2019), the evidence on "school choice" does not indicate that it is an effective policy framework.
ESAs Will Negatively Impact Rural Communities
Giving money directly to Texans through ESAs is unlikely to benefit students in rural areas, who have expressed concerns (i.e., Salhotra, 2023) that the loss of teacher jobs would harm communities economically with little benefit for children in rural areas without nearby private school options. These rural families are highly likely to be unable to leverage the opportunities offered potentially by ESAs for this reason unless they are able and willing to take advantage of homeschool options, which often requires at least one parent to quit their job to teach their children at home.
ESAs Have Hefty Financial and Long-Term Costs
Texas schools are historically underfunded, with Texas consistently ranking in the bottom ten in state rankings of national school funding (USA Facts, 2023). The Senate version of SB8 attempted to provide some buffer in finances for public, especially rural, schools in the first years of implementation of an ESA program, but this provision has since been removed in the House deliberations. The inevitable consequence of SB8 passing would be that public schools that lose state funding either due to either general budget decrease or decrease in student attendance will suffer from changes in staffing patterns, loss of teaching jobs, and overcrowded classrooms.
ESAs Will Not Benefit Students Living in Poverty
Allocating ESAs to low-income families will not uplift their children from poverty. The average private school tuition in Texas is $10,017 for elementary and $11,407 for high school (Texas Private School Review, 2023). This amount is at least three thousand dollars above the proposed minimum stipend amount, which doesn't account for the additional required costs of attending private school such as expensive uniforms, books, extracurriculars, and other fees.
ESAs Would Compromise the Right of Children with Disabilities to Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
Even though children with disabilities are one of the groups that SB8 defines as eligible for ESAs, “school choice” policies are unlikely to benefit those with the greatest needs. While students with certain disabilities (i.e., dyslexia) might benefit from additional funds for tutoring or could potentially find appropriate services at private schools, students that have behavior disorders, emotional disturbance, autism, ADHD, or other low-incidence disabilities (i.e., hearing impaired/deaf, blind), require more resource-intensive accommodations which private schools are not financially equipped, nor legally required to provide.
As such, SB8 potentially compromises federal mandates to provide all eligible students with disabilities a Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment, with their non-disabled peers, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004). Texas, a state already in violation of federal guidelines in the provision of special education services (see Kamenetz, 2018), would better benefit its students with disabilities through investing additional funds in state-funded special schools, such as the Texas School for the Blind, or the pre-existing special education services in the public schools.
Texas Should Invest in Equity in Public Education
The need for additional support for students is clear, and our Centers and Institutes highly value the voices of parents in identifying how to meet student needs. In an October 2021 needs-assessment survey we conducted in partnership with local stakeholders in October 2021, we heard from 221 parents and/or caregivers within Tarrant County, the majority (>85%) of which were mothers of public school children, regarding what supports would help their children in relation to education. The most prominent supports requested for their children were better communication from schools, smaller class sizes, improved technology, individualized teaching for specific student learning styles and needs, opportunities for socialization and improving mental health, and provision of free meals.
Parents and other caregivers in Tarrant County are concerned about equity in schools, both for their children and other students. The creation of ESAs would be antithetical to these concerns expressed by parents in our local community, especially since the private sector is not required to accept children of all ability levels and backgrounds into their schools (for more see Raise Your Hand Texas, 2017).
Texans Have the Right to High-Quality, Free, Public Education
Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution (1876) establishes the “duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools”. This right has been upheld historically, as well as in the current year, through budget amendments that prohibit the use of state dollars to fund private entities in the education sector. Not only is cultivating equitable access to education part of our state’s fundamental rights and values, but the right to high-quality, public education is relevant to international human rights law (for more see Abidjan Principles, 2023).
Rather than allocating what will soon amount to $8 billion dollars a year in taxpayer dollars to the hands of the private sector, which has much lower accountability to Texas voters, Texas parents must have their voices heard in the public school setting by legislators committing these same funds to Texas public schools. In addition, both the public and private sector must allow districts and schools to use these funds in accordance with the local needs identified by families, students, and teachers and by implementing policy changes allowing decentralized community-decision making in the distribution of these funds so they that are optimized to meet the needs of each local community context.
 At the time of the publication of this brief, the Texas Senate has passed a revamped school funding bill that included an amendment for a school voucher program. It seems unlikely that it will pass the Texas House of Representatives. Governor Abbot has indicated he will call a special session of the legislature to try and pass a voucher bill if the current session doesn’t approve one. (https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/22/texas-senate-school-voucher/)
 This brief focuses SB8 as it was the original bill creating a school voucher system in Texas. Since then, there have been various iterations of this bill, including the aforementioned amendment.
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 As of the time of this writing, eligibility for ESAs is being defined in the proposal as young Texans with a disability, qualify for free or reduced lunch (FRL), attend a campus with a very low accountability ranking (grade D or lower), or have a sibling in the program (Lopez & Nguyen, 2023). Given that over 60% of students in Texas qualify for FRL alone, these guidelines would make a large majority of young Texans eligible. The new version of the bill also increases the ESA award amount to $10,500 for students defined as 'educationally disadvantaged' that have a disability, $9,000 for those who are 'educationally disadvantaged' without a disability, and $7,500 to other qualifying students (Lopez & Nguyen, 2023).