Texas public policy foundation
Educational Choice in Texas: The Fierce Urgency of Now
 
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This commentary originally appeared in TribTalk on January 31, 2017.

Parents know that every single day in their children’s lives is pivotal.

Teachers know that every student entrusted to them deserves their best effort, every single day.

Unfortunately, Texas is failing in its obligation to do its best for each of its 5.2 million schoolchildren. Though many thrive in their current schools, nearly 1 million languish in failing or severely struggling schools.

If we want to ensure that every one of our Texas schoolchildren has the opportunity to flourish, then we need to innovate beyond the antiquated method of conveyor-belt education, where children become “products,” and where parental freedom is quashed by “the system.”

Failing to do so will ignore what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “fierce urgency of now” — the recognition, he said, of realizing “there is such a thing as being too late.”

Implementing one innovative, 21st-century idea — “Education Savings Accounts,” or ESAs — would put the needs of children ahead of the demands of the system, as ESAs allow parents to customize their children’s education. An ESA is administered via debit card or online account from which parents draw to pay for eligible education expenses. Tuition, books, and special needs programs can all be paid for by an ESA, which would use the same state funds that would otherwise pay for the child’s education in a public school. 

With the 2017 legislative session now underway, Texas is already lagging behind most states in offering liberty-based policy innovation for education. More than 30 states have already passed some form of educational choice, including five that have created ESAs; even Washington, D.C., offers need-based scholarships that allow children to attend the private school of their choice.  Texas’ poor achievements in education freedom has earned it a grade of F in school choice from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the nation’s largest nonpartisan association of state legislators.

Policymakers in our nation’s capital and in those aforementioned 30 states recognized that for each day they waited to address every child’s needs, they risked losing some children to a system that values the old way of doing things ahead of creative ideas and innovative solutions to challenging problems.

Skeptics of this policy innovation, however, might ask, “Why not just spend more money on the system?”

The answer — beyond the typical inefficiency of a bureaucracy — is that we no longer spend new education dollars on education. For every dollar the average Texas property-owner pays in taxes for schools, only half ends up in the classroom. The bloat of central office personnel has come at the expense of intellectually starved children whose educational choices are limited to their zip codes.

Seen in that light, giving Texas schoolchildren true educational freedom is a matter of social justice. In what other aspect of our lives would Americans tolerate such an arbitrary way of determining how we access the best path for a bright future?

In addition to helping those children whose parents use an ESA, this innovation will help all students — even those who elect to stay in their current schools. Our research at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation shows that there is a “tipping point” of educational choice: just a small percentage of adopters prompt school districts to innovate. Such is the benefit of competition!

Furthermore, projections of Texas’ population growth far outpace the number of classroom seats currently available. To meet that demand, the state must find creative ways to meet its constitutional obligation to educate all Texas children. By giving parents the freedom to choose on behalf of the most important people in their lives — their children — our state can ensure that all young Texans are given the opportunity to flourish.

Anything short of this is not merely a rejection of freedom — it is a rejection of justice and the condemnation of our future generations to mediocrity. It is far past time for Texans to seize “the fierce urgency of now” for our most precious resource, our children. They, not “the system,” deserve our focus.

As Dr. King might remind us, “This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”