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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Financing Public Education

Financing public education in Texas is linked to the goal of achieving a "general diffusion of knowledge." Article VII, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution requires that our lawmakers set up a system that accomplishes this mandate. The roadblocks are intentional, set up by the framers of the state to guarantee the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people through free public education. Proponents of the voucher system tout this redistribution system as the cure-all for education problems in Texas. The current research does not support this argument. Additionally, the Texas Supreme Court is closely monitoring the issue and provides strong rationale for why a voucher system would fail in Texas. Quite frankly, vouchers should be taken off the table for any meaningful discussion of school finance in Texas.

When Texans think of school finance, we instantly think "Robin Hood." Our richer school districts (Chapter 41) give money to poorer school districts (Chapter 42) under a complicated formula found in the Education Code. (Shirley Neeley v. West Orange-Cove Cons. ISD, p. 6) Some districts love the system; other districts believe they are being overtaxed. One thing is certain: under the "Robin Hood" system students are generally not on the move. Money changes hands but the students stay in their neighborhoods. "Robin Hood" was set up with the knowledge that we would reallocate the funds, not relocate the students.

The Texas Supreme Court said that the current public financing system is efficient (meaning we are able to provide a general diffusion of knowledge); however, tomorrow it may be unconstitutionally burdensome. (Neeley, p. 33). The heavy gavel of the Texas Supreme Court is cocked and ready to strike down any idea that would throw the system into inefficiency. Recently, an all-Republican Texas Supreme Court stated that our current system creates an unconstitutional tax cap that, if removed, would create financial inefficiency whereby the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots would be too great to allow. (Neeley, p39). School vouchers by design can only create a shift in financial inefficiency.

Milton Friedman may have been the economic creator of the idea of school vouchers, but San Antonio millionaire James Leininger is the catalyst for school vouchers in Texas. The two share the view that parents should be given real money that they can use to send their children to any school public or private, even non-secular schools. Many opponents argue that any public money that goes toward a parochial school is unconstitutional. Yet, the recent 2002 U.S. Supreme court case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris concluded that the church and state separation requirement is not violated by a voucher program.

For purposes of this article, we have two distinct policy choices: 1) do we maintain our current public education system or 2) switch to a school voucher system? The US Department of Education released a report available here that found that public schools perform as well as private schools. When asked about this study, President Weaver of the National Education Association said, "Some lawmakers seem to think funneling students into private schools will magically fix the country's education problems, but this report shows that's not the answer." Essentially, a school voucher system to send students to private schools would not improve the performance of public schools, private schools, or most importantly the students. This conclusion is supported by the working papers from the National Center on School Choice. In Harvard professor Rajashri Chakrabarti's paper, Can Increasing Private School Participation and Monetary Loss in a Voucher Program Affect Public School Performance? Evidence from Milwaukee, he states, "The paper thus provides an important lesson - any voucher program may not have a positive effect of public school incentives and performance." (Chakrabarti, p 40).

But the voucher system also brings up some other fundamental fairness questions. Who gets to use the vouchers, where, when, and why? Proponents believe that vouchers solve these problems. Proponents say that you can design voucher systems that are not affected by the income of the participants by forcing the participating private schools to accept students randomly and accept the voucher as full and final payment. However, even the studies of these proponents acknowledge certain inalienable facts.

First, no policy maker can create a system that if free from sorting by ability. (Chakrabarti, p. 20). Ability refers to the ability of the child, the motivation of the parents, the parents' educational level and the parents' desire for the child's education - literally, the ability of a child to get to a certain location, or the ability of the parents to get them there. (Ib., p. 7). Second, vouchers undermine accountability of public funds because private schools have complete autonomy with regard to operations. (NEA). Third, vouchers do not give parents real educational choice because private schools may limit enrollment and discriminate in whom they accept. (NEA).

One fact remains absolutely clear - American citizens do not want vouchers. According to the National Education Association, the citizenry does not approve of voucher systems. "Since 1966, vouchers or voucher-related measures have been placed before voters in 13 states and the District of Columbia 22 times. With the lone exception of South Dakota - which approved the provision of textbooks to parochial schools in 1986 - voters have rejected public aid to private and religious schools every time. In those 22 elections, nearly two out of three voters cast 'no' votes." (NEA Website on vouchers).

In this way, Texans agree with the rest of the country. According to the Austin American-Statesman May 18, 2006 article by April Castro, in the last election, twelve candidates endorsed by the Texas Parent PAC to stop Leininger's candidates won seats in the Texas House. As previously discussed in The Texas Blue article on District 85, one of the main campaign issues was vouchers. In both of these instances, Texans voted against proponents of school vouchers. Vouchers should not be a meaningful part of the discussion of school finance in Texas.

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