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Don't Fear the Reaper? How About No.

With the dust settled over the midterms, we must now look onward to the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 10.

One of the anticipated items to be addressed is school vouchers. I wrote about school vouchers earlier in the year and encouraged readers to research the voucher debate and understand these programs are a red herring to defund local public schools and redistribute funds to wealthy parents in other parts of the state to attend private schools.

After offering academic research, not studies conducted by pro-school voucher entities like Texas Public Policy Foundation or Education Freedom Institute that feed their echo chambers, it was clear that voucher programs fail to offer the home run its advocates so desire. The research repeatedly shows this.

Voucher program advocates do not use the word “vouchers” in the education debate. They use a friendly word called “choice.” This is simply wordplay because voucher advocates want parents to feel powerless in the education system. They use neat catchphrases like “fund students, not systems.”

Such rhetoric works. In a recent Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler poll, a majority of respondents supported “school choice.” The use of the word “choice” needs further breakdown.

To reiterate, voucher advocates want parents to feel trapped in public education. They make parents feel scared about the safety of their child because of culture war issues that are overhyped in their media. Then they argue about “failing schools” and how children should not be “stuck” due to a zip code. The verbosity continues but they are based on the hope that parents do not know that school choice already exists. Did you know parents can take their children to any school they desire? If a parent wants their child to attend a charter, private, or another public school, the parent has the power to choose.

What is also confounding is that a voucher or an education savings account does not guarantee admission to a parent’s school of choice. Even though parents may choose the school for their children, rejection is a possibility. When an argument rests on the foundation of “helping students succeed” and to provide a better opportunity for success than a “failing school” yet can reject students, how is that helpful?

This vital information is conveniently omitted from voucher advocates. Because the voucher is associated with “choice,” admission is an afterthought when, at the most, it should be at the forefront. What “choice” do parents have when such options can be removed?

Another key part of the “choice” argument is the cute phrase “fund students, not systems.” It is based on the idea the state funds should follow students, not be placed in the school system. Of course, who would be against such? In Texas, this phrase is nonsensical and should not be repeated by anyone who wants to seriously discuss Texas’ school finance formula. Why? Because Texas’ school finance is based on students! Yes, the formula is complex but the basic allotment for a lot of Texas schools is average student attendance. While the charge to “fund students, not systems” may be popular, it is redundant in Texas.

Now Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick argue that rural Texas, the place elects statewide officials and has little educational choices, should not fear a possible school voucher system. The argument that consistently appears is “the money will be there.”

In other words, do not fear the reaper. Other states made this promise but in other ways. In Indiana, then Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a law only allowing public school students to be eligible for the voucher program. Shortly thereafter, the eligibility requirements expanded considerably.

Since that expansion, rural school funding has come at its expense with closure or possibly consolidation. How does that help students where a “choice” is limited? Spoiler alert, it does not.

Consider that as we go forward in this upcoming session and there is little to no doubt a voucher program will be on the agenda. Its political history has not stood strong in the Texas House but with lawmakers who were consistent nay votes, now saying “wait and see,” maybe vouchers will have its day in Texas’ lower chamber.

But this reminds of a quote attributed to one of my favorite Founding Fathers, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Facts and evidence, indeed, Mr. Adams. Facts and evidence, indeed.

Drew Landry is an assistant professor of government at South Plains College. This op-ed first appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

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