Using tax dollars to fund private schools a terrible idea

Published 9:08 am Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Texas public school districts are in trouble.

On Monday, Sen. Larry Taylor, a Republican from Galveston, introduced S.B. 3, a school choice bill that will allow public funds to follow school children to whatever private school they wish to attend. This includes religious private schools. In short, this bill will ensure that public school districts that include private schools will receive even less money than they already do.

This bill should fail, and I hope our local state representatives and senators vote appropriately.

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If the bill passes, it will be a win for the business interests that back private schools. It will be a loss for most everyone else, however.

Advocates of the bill point out this will create competition. But with different laws and regulations overseeing public and private education, fair competition is impossible.

Furthermore, if it is a competition then it’s likely most private schools offer worse value than public schools. While it is easy to point to a few examples of private schools that produce great students, it is nigh impossible to find any private schools that do what public schools do—accept everyone. If there is to be a level playing field, fine—but there is nothing equal about one school district being forced by law to accept all students and another school being able to take public money but also rejecting students for any reason.

It’s kind of like the false equivalency of the post office and FedEx. Critics of federal management like to point out that FedEx earns an annual profit while the post office loses money each year. Well, yes. But FedEx doesn’t deliver anywhere near the same amount of mail. And it’s more expensive. And they don’t deliver everywhere. They certainly don’t have offices set up in nearly every community and hamlet in America. In short, there is no comparison at all.

But, of course, we don’t subsidize FedEx with tax dollars. Likewise, we should not offer up public money to educational institutions that do not offer education to everyone. We need not look far back in our collective history to see the results of a separate-but-equal educational system—there is no equality if there is separation.

Advocates of school choice like to point out that private schools offer smaller classes and more intense instruction—a better education, in other words—to poor students who could otherwise not afford such education. This may be true, but private schools are ill equipped to teach students with deep learning disabilities, with serious behavioral problems or students whose parents frankly do not care enough to enroll their child in a better school system. All of these types of kids need to be educated and it is manifestly unfair to underfund their education so that a bright, well-behaved student who comes from a good home can get ahead. We succeed as a community and as a state when we tend to the needs of the least of us as well as to the needs of the brightest.

The sad, depressing fact is: Charter and private schools coalesce the children of motivated, engaged parents who will do more to ensure their children’s success. These children are likelier to succeed no matter what, and it is vitally important that these parents and their children remain in and engaged with public schools. A public school supported by concerned, engaged parents is likelier to succeed that a public school district supported by no one.

Of course, this argument assumes private and charter schools are actually a better value at all and this assumption runs contrary to evidence. In 2015, the New York Times published research from social scientists who tracked thousands of students in hundreds of school districts. Their conclusion? Charter schools do work—in urban areas.

Changing state law to benefit only kids in urban areas seems like a shortsighted and wasteful strategy. If private and charter schools can work, we need to find out why—and we need to duplicate those strategies in public education. This is the path to success. Siphoning off high-performing students and draining public education funds is little more than a race to the bottom.