Education

Texas’ main voucher bill seeks to avoid other states’ mistakes but keeps ideas that attracted criticism

Like in Texas, voucher programs in other states sparked vigorous debates, came with the same promises and faced similar concerns. Not all predictions came true.

A classroom at Chapa Middle School in Kyle on Aug. 24, 2021.
Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
A classroom at Chapa Middle School in Kyle on Aug. 24, 2021.

The Texas Senate's main school voucher proposal this special session, which was given approval in the Texas Senate on Thursday, closely resembles two of the biggest such programs in the country.

Like in Arizona and Florida, Senate Bill 1 would create a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts. It would give families access to taxpayer money to pay for their children's private schooling, be open to most students in the state and prioritize disabled and poor students if there are more applicants than funds available.

In some aspects, the bill's architects took notes from those programs' mistakes. In an effort to prevent fraud and misuse of funds, which has been a problem in Arizona, the Texas proposal doesn't give parents direct access to the cash and requires the comptroller's office to audit participants' accounts.

In other areas, Texas repeated ideas that garnered criticism in other states. Critics across the country point out that private schools receiving state funds through existing voucher programs aren't required to show that students are succeeding academically, like public schools are. And like in other states, voucher supporters in Texas say that's by design. Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Republican from Conroe and SB 1's author, has argued that the market will weed out underperforming private schools.

Those voucher programs in other states also sparked vigorous debates, came with the same promises and faced similar concerns, providing a window into the impact they might have in Texas once enacted. The Arizona program, for instance, confirmed critics' concerns that it would require increasingly larger amounts of funding as it grew — just like opponents in Texas fear. But it hasn't led to a mass exodus of students from public schools.

Here's how education savings accounts have performed in other states.

Arizona and Florida

Education savings accounts started propping up around 2012 and currently serve more than 90,000 students across the country, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for these policies.

There are 13 education savings account programs nationwide and 31 states — plus Washington, D.C. — offer some sort of voucher program that allows children to use either taxpayer money or tax-credit donations for private schooling.

To date, Arizona and Florida have the largest and most expansive education savings account programs in the country, where almost any child is eligible.

Arizona — which has "set the standard" for education savings accounts, according to EdChoice — began with a limited version of the program in 2011 that only served students with disabilities. It expanded this year and opened its doors to virtually every child in the state, becoming one of the biggest programs in the country.

In 12 years, enrollment in the program grew from about 150 students to over 60,000. The Arizona Department of Education believes it would need $900 million by June to cover 100,000 students in the program. What once was a small program is now expected to balloon to nearly $1 billion.

Meanwhile, the state's public school funding per student continues to rank at the bottom when compared to the rest of the country.

Carrie Sampson, an assistant professor of educational leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, argued that the money being poured into this program could've been used to increase funding to the state's public schools.

Earlier this year, Florida's education savings accounts were also expanded to include virtually every child. More than 170,000 new students — most already enrolled in private schools — have been admitted to the program, making it the biggest in the country.

Florida launched its program in 2014 focused on students with disabilities. The state launched another education savings accounts program that prioritized low-income families in 2019.

Analysis and data show that this school year about $1.5 billion will be diverted from Florida public schools to private schools as students leave.

Plenty of families have lauded education savings accounts in both states for giving them access to other educational opportunities. But the programs have also attracted criticism for their loose financial oversight and for not requiring private schools to report student test scores or meet the same academic standards as public schools.

Arizona parents have spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on fraudulent and questionable purchases, including buying chicken coops, trampolines and tickets to SeaWorld. The problems stemmed from the practice of sending program funds to participants through debit cards issued by the state, said Tom Horne, the Arizona superintendent of public instruction.

Horne, a Republican, said the program has phased out debit cards in an attempt to curb misuse of funds. Now, parents log on to a website where they can browse through pre-approved vendors and choose the services they need, which allows the state to approve the purchases.

"We want the program to be administered totally within the law and the money can only be used for educational purposes so we can prove that it’s a successful program both for Arizona and for the country, since other people are looking to us as an example," he said.

In Florida, flat screen TVs, paddleboards and entry to Disney are approved educational expenses. Critics there say that's not how taxpayer money should be used; defenders of the program say education has evolved and those can be justified expenses.

Who uses the funds is also a concern for those against education savings accounts. In Arizona, as in Texas, the program was promoted as a way for low-income families who might feel confined within the public education system and want to explore other educational options for their children. But after the program expanded, the Arizona education department found that 75% of those in the program were not previously enrolled in public school, meaning they were already home-schooling, enrolled at a private school or had never entered the school system.

The Grand Canyon Institute, a non-partisan think tank, echoed those findings and estimated that 45% of applicants were among the wealthiest quartile of students in the state.

Horne admitted that most of the money went to families already at private schools jumping into the program to get financial help from taxpayers. But he projects that the distribution of funds will eventually balance out as more families not in private schools apply.

And while program supporters promote them as a tool to help students with disabilities get a better education, only 17% of education savings accounts in Arizona have gone to students with disabilities, according to the Arizona education department.

Arizona does not provide data on demographics or income for those enrolled in the program.

Texas

SB 1 would allow almost all Texas families access to $8,000 of taxpayer money to pay for private schools and other educational expenses such as uniforms, textbooks, tutoring or transportation, among other things.

Texas would become the third largest provider of education savings accounts in the country if the bill is approved with its current eligibility requirements and budget. It could serve nearly 60,000 students.

"Educating the next generation of Texans is a fundamental responsibility, and it is my belief that empowering parents with school choice will encourage competition, innovation and ensure that every student in Texas has the opportunity to find an educational path for their unique needs," Creighton said in a statement.

SB 1 seeks to address some of the problems the Arizona and Florida programs have had.

The bill would allocate $500 million from the state’s general revenue fund for the next two years to pay for the program. The state comptroller's office would establish and administer the savings accounts; be in charge of preventing fraud and misuse of funds; and hire a contractor to help process applications and approve vendors and participating private schools.

In addition, the bill would require the comptroller to compile an annual report that would include how many students are in the program, the number of applications received or waitlisted, feedback from users, public and private school capacity, and how many kids are considered ready for college, the military or a career after graduating in the program.

The legislation would also mirror much of what Florida and Arizona are already doing.

While almost any child is eligible for the program, SB 1 has a prioritization system if applications exceed the funding. To prioritize entry to underprivileged groups, the bill proposes that no more than 40% of spots be reserved for students who receive free or reduced lunch; no more than 30% for families who earn between 185% and 500% of the federal poverty line; no more than 20% for students with disabilities; and 10% for all other applicants who attended public, private or home-school in the last school year.

The prioritization system has garnered criticism though. Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said the "no more than" language implies there will be a cap on how much funding goes to underprivileged applicants, instead of prioritizing them.

And like programs in other states, the bill does not require private school students to take a state-administered academic achievement exam, something that school voucher critics in the Texas Legislature have said an education savings account proposal should have to even consider it.

Creighton says that the program will not siphon money away from public schools — a recurring criticism of school voucher programs — as the funding comes from general revenue, not the Foundation School Program, which is the main source of funding for the state's K-12 public schools.

But according to the bill’s financial analysis, school districts are set to receive less money as students sign up for education savings accounts and leave public schools. School districts in Texas receive funding based on student attendance.

Research

School vouchers — a term used to describe government programs like education savings accounts that provide taxpayer money to pay for children's private schooling — have been a goal of conservative, free-market groups for decades.

Plenty of research has been produced on these programs. Creighton himself has cited research from EdChoice that shows vouchers have a mostly positive impact on student scores.

But research on vouchers is often contentious, with studies ranging in methodologies, sample sizes and demographics. Donors advocating for and against these programs have directly funded their own research.

The Texas Tribune looked at independent research and spoke to experts who have studied voucher programs for decades. For the most part, studies suggest that test scores go down for students in such programs, especially in math. This has been the case in states like Indiana and Louisiana.

Some research from the Journal of Economic Literature suggests that there is a case that, as competition from voucher programs ramped up, test scores in public schools slightly improved. But there isn't enough evidence to suggest vouchers are the main reason for improved outcomes.

Patrick Wolf, a proponent of vouchers and a distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas, said he's found that test scores among students in voucher programs have been mixed but tend to have a slight positive tilt.

But in 2016, Wolf and his colleagues found that within two years after Louisiana expanded its limited voucher program to all students, there were "substantively large" negative effects on math scores of students in the program. Louisiana first only offered vouchers to students in low-performing public schools.

Wolf attributed the decline in academic achievement to Louisiana's strict regulations on private schools, like requiring them to take a state assessment. In his research, he found that high-quality private schools did not want the state oversight that Louisiana proposed, leading those schools to opt out of the program.

Results "depend on policy design and context," Wolf said.

Wolf believes voucher programs work if they start on a small scale and gradually grow and set up systems to avoid misuse of funds as best as possible.

"I don’t think many states are prepared to implement a universal school choice program instantly from the jump," Wolf said.

Joshua Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University who has studied school choice programs for more than a decade, said test scores for students in voucher programs decrease in part because of low-quality private schools. Some just open to collect tax dollars, he said, and most of the high-quality private schools cost too much money for parents to afford anyway, often leaving them with few viable options.

"They’re not these elite college, prep type environments," Cowen said. "These are sub-prime providers."

In Wisconsin, home of the oldest voucher program in the country, a study found that 41% of all private voucher schools operating in Milwaukee between 1991 and 2015 closed.

Cowen said Texas lawmakers should stay away from voucher-like programs because he still doesn't believe that there is enough credible data that shows vouchers are good for student test scores.