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Reform in Texas Education: Why We So Desperately Need It

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This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 1/30/2013.

My line of work -- which, put simply, is to fight for the betterment of Texas education -- necessitates that I criticize the status quo often. Before I do exactly that again, in honor of National School Choice Week, I want to make something clear: there's a lot for Texas' public education system to be proud of. Our 4th and 8th grade students test extremely well in reading and math, particularly our African-American and Hispanic students. Last year, more Texas students than ever took the SAT, and our high school graduation rate has been (slowly) ticking up over the last few years.

Now I'm going to tell you we need monumental change. Along with the goods I just outlined, Texas still suffers from an abysmal 26 percent dropout rate. Even though we had many students take the SAT, they did not perform well on it; in fact, our scores were lower than they've been in a decade. We have a massive, increasingly diverse student population with a concurrently diverse set of needs. Needs that will not always be best met by the school that is physically closest to them. We need to open up our education system so that every Texas student has a chance at the education best for them. Texas needs private school choice.

Attempts to expand access to private schools are often viewed as an assault on public education. The reality is that private choice programs not only benefit participating students, but benefit the surrounding public school system as well.

This can be seen in the privately funded Edgewood Horizon Scholarship Program that offered scholarships to students living within San Antonio's Edgewood school district from 1998 to 2008. During the first six years of the program's operation, math test scores of participating students jumped up 28 percent, and reading scores improved by 21 percent. Ninety-one percent of scholarships recipients attended some college.

What's more impressive was the positive impact competition had on the district's public schools. From 1998 to 2004, Edgewood's graduation rate jumped from 57 percent to 80 percent. According to a UT-San Antonio study, more than half of those gains were directly attributable to the scholarship program.

On top of that, the district's dropout rate fell by more than 30 percent during the run of the program, and in a competitive environment teacher pay increased 37 percent, far out-stripping salary gains made in surrounding districts. When you couple those elements with the increasing property values and local revenues experienced during this time frame, the broad potential benefits of school choice are apparent.

These results are not unique to Texas. A recent study by the Florida Department of Education determined the education scholarship program running in their state had been of benefit to their public education system, and saved the state $38.9 million in 2008 alone.

At the end of the day, school choice is about two things: giving every child a shot at the best education for them, and bringing excellence-driving competition into the education system. Right now, Texas does not have a competitive education system, and we're certainly not meeting the needs of all our students as best we can. This is why reform -- specifically school choice reform -- is vital for the future of Texas education and young Texans.