Education Reform

Cameron Vickrey: What’s the End Game with School Choice in Texas?

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Cameron Vickrey is associate director of Pastors for Texas Children. In this opinion article published in the San Antonio Express-News, she asks the important question: What’s the end game with the privatization push? Texas has 5 million children in public schools, and about 356,000 in charter schools. The drive for vouchers has been blocked thus far by parents, the Pastors, and a legislative combination of rural Republicans and urban Democrats. But Texas is now ground zero for the charter lobby. Why? Betsy DeVos is one reason: As U.S. Secretary of Education, she poured hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal Charter School Program into corporate chains in Texas, such as IDEA and KIPP. And, Texas has its own home-grown billionaires and libertarians eager to destroy the public schools.

She writes:

Let’s have a serious conversation about the purpose of school choice.

A recent Senate Committee on Education hearing in the Texas Legislature revealed a fundamental divergence in our state’s philosophy of education. One senator admitted proudly the reason Texas has charter schools is to provide “pure choice.”

Pure choice is not the prevailing narrative that we have been told. Many public school supporters have made concessions for charter schools so kids who are “stuck in failing schools” have an affordable alternative. But now we know this is not the end game. The end game is simply choice.

The theory behind pure choice is a commodified system of schools, where each school competes against the others in a marketplace. Expensive “edvertising” is used to convince us our kids will get ahead in life if we choose a certain school. Schools will intentionally attract certain kids — not all kids — to boost their test scores and outcomes, making it look like they are winning in the business of education. We will lose the value of education that our traditional school system provides, as part of a democracy, as a public good.To parents whose kids are happily enrolled in charter schools, good for you. I do not begrudge you that choice, and I wish your child a successful and fulfilling education. Having choices in education is not the problem. The problem is the deregulated free market, resulting in too much choice that ends up diluting all schools— including charters.

Back to the hearing. In the witness chair sat a superintendent of a large suburban school district. He testified against Senate Bill 28, explaining it would allow for a proliferation of charter schools without regard to their impact on his district. He told of his district’s loss of revenue because of students leaving his schools for charter schools.

Some senators on this committee — whose responsibility it is to understand the basic formulas of public school finance — were either incapable or unwilling to comprehend the superintendent’s testimony.

A senator insisted that if tax dollars follow the child to the charter school, then it stands to reason that the district has one less child to educate and therefore requires that much less money. The superintendent politely explained that one less child reduces revenue, but he cannot reduce expenditures to make up for the loss.

If you have trouble following this line of thinking, consider: Five students leave a public school for a charter school. Their tax dollars (let’s say, $1,000 each) follow them to that charter school. So now the public school will receive $5,000 less. But the students were spread out across five grade levels and two schools. So the superintendent cannot reduce overhead costs by $5,000. The superintendent cannot cut back on air conditioning or eliminate a teacher. The budget cuts will come in special services such as libraries, art, music, languages and all the other things that make schools good.

What’s more frustrating is that many charter schools are promising to provide these special services and programs that the neighborhood public school can no longer afford to provide.

So, yes, senators, this is an inconvenient truth. We know you want to create a system of pure choice, where each institution only has to look out for itself, “be the best it can be,” as state Sen. Paul Bettencourt has said. But that only works in a fair competitive market. We are not seeing a fair marketplace. And too many bills this session would like to give charter schools even more of an edge, thereby disadvantaging traditional schools.

We cannot sustain two parallel systems of publicly funded schools with our tax dollars. And I think our senators know this. This is the real end game of their pure choice system.

I would like to tell our senators: Try marriage before divorce. You have not stayed true to your vows to make suitable provisions for our existing public school system. Stop flirting with so many charter schools and the idea of a no-strings-attached marketplace for education, and do the work of tending to your marriage.

Cameron Vickrey is the associate director for Pastors for Texas Children. She also co-founded RootEd, a local parent-led advocacy group for public schools.

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