Cover Story
Christian Academy of San Antonio
Amy McCullough
Christian Academy of San Antonio

Lone Star laboratory

Back to School | Texas is likely the next school choice frontier

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

Most states at least permit school choice for students with specific learning disabilities or special needs, but the red state of Texas, oddly, has no laws that give poor parents and children options other than public schools. That seems likely to change in 2015, for three reasons.

First, the state’s lieutenant governor has a lot of power in shaping legislation, and the next lieutenant governor likely will be Republican Dan Patrick, an outspoken school choice advocate who has chaired the state’s Senate Education Committee. The new governor likely will be Attorney General Greg Abbott, who advocates parental choice in education while avoiding using the word jumped on by the educational left, vouchers. (See “Wheeling onto the national stage,” May 31.)

Second, budget-friendly proposals are now ready. The influential Texas Public Policy Foundation, for example, advocates “taxpayer savings grants” legislation, essentially a voucher program by a different name. In this program parents who opt in would receive up to $5,000 to spend at the public or private school of their choice. (That’s 60 percent of the annual state spending on operation and maintenance for each public-school pupil.) The estimated savings to the state: $2 billion in the first two years.

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Third, Texas for 10 years had a large-scale, $52 million school choice experiment, the Horizon program, in San Antonio’s poor Edgewood school district—and the program worked. The Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation sponsored the program with money donated by the Walton Family and Covenant foundations. The Horizon experiment was and is nationally significant because it was the first program to be “universal,” offering vouchers to all public-school students residing within a particular school district. Edgewood district families were eligible for vouchers they could use at any secular or religious private school, or at a public school outside the district. 

At the height of the program (that tapered in its last years due to funding limitations) more than 2,000 students—16 percent of district enrollment—used vouchers, and almost all did so at private schools. The state spent $8,600 for each Edgewood public-school student, but Horizon elementary-school participants received vouchers of $3,600 for private schools located within the district, and high-school students received vouchers of $4,000. (Voucher amounts for out-of-district public schools were lower.)

The academic effects were notable: The college attendance rate of Horizon graduates was 91 percent in 2005 and 93 percent in 2006. One hundred percent of Horizon parents said the program had “positively impacted the development of their voucher-using children a lot”(emphasis added because if they were only mildly impressed they could have checked off “a little”). In addition, the community gained economically: People moved into the school district, property values went up, and new businesses opened.

Horizon also led to the opening of new schools, including the voucher-using Christian Academy of San Antonio, which opened in August 2000. Reclaimed from an old grocery store and strip mall, CASA still operates on the edge of Edgewood and is easily one of the nicest-looking facilities for blocks. When Horizon ended, the Covenant Foundation stepped in to keep CASA alive, and about 50 percent of its current student population receives scholarships: Cost is $3,600 per year for elementary and middle-school students and $4,700 per year for high-school students.

Horizon showed that a voucher program could improve educational achievement, save the state money, improve test scores of the local public-school district, and have a positive economic impact on the area. But those concerned with maintaining the same amount of state funding at individual schools view Horizon negatively: Individual Edgewood public schools ended up with less money overall, because they experienced a net loss of students.

Those with a financial interest in maintaining the status quo typically fund opposition to school choice.

—Amy McCullough is a Texas journalist

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