This commentary originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 27, 2015.
When the founding fathers of Texas gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos nearly two centuries ago and set forth their reasons for separation from Mexico, chief among them was the failure of the Mexican government to provide any education system.
It was a complaint—and an aspiration—rooted in the Jeffersonian concept of civic democracy, one affirmed a generation later in the drafting of the Texas State Constitution of 1876. A constant refrain in the Lone Star State of the 19th century was a belief in the power of universal education for all, and in the duty of the state to ensure access to it. “The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy,” Mirabeau Lamar,the second president of the Republic of Texas, once said. Those are words Texans took seriously—and in 2015, the Texas Legislature has an opportunity to fulfill their promise.
Lawmakers in Austin are now debating SB 276, a bill that would provide school choice and educational freedom to all Texas students. It would allow parents who opt out of public schools to take with them 60% of the money the state would otherwise spend on their child—about $5,200—to pay private-school tuition. The rest of the money, roughly $3,000 per student, would go back into the state treasury. This would be the most comprehensive school-choice plan in the nation, available to every Texas public-school student, more than five million in all. Similar programs in other states are usually limited to a certain subset of children, such as those in low-income homes.
Under this plan, everyone wins: students, parents and taxpayers. But significant hurdles stand in the way. Outsiders commonly assume that Texas is redder than the maroon at an Aggie football game. Beyond the urban cores and the border regions, that is true: Texas is very Republican. But party affiliation is only the beginning of the story, as any Texan who has paid attention to politics can tell you. Despite its conservative reputation and generally sound governance, there are areas in which the Lone Star State leans surprisingly leftward.
Chief among them is our school system. While other states have made tremendous progress implementing educational freedom—allowing students and parents to do what’s best for them, rather than what’s best for unions and bureaucracies—Texas has lagged behind.
This is in part because Texas’ system for funding schools is opaque and Byzantine, with two different mechanisms allocating money based on complex formulas. The Texas Constitution requires that schools be “efficient,” and state courts are currently adjudicating whether the funding system meets this standard. The bottom line is that it is difficult to enact true education reform when it’s unclear who is paying the bills.
Further difficulty is caused by the unique coalitions that form here on education policy. In many states, school choice is opposed by a classic left-wing alliance—teachers unions and bureaucrats. In Texas, the contours of the debate are different. Much of the opposition to educational freedom comes from state legislators who hail from areas that are predominantly rural, suburban, exurban and Anglo—a constituency that overlaps heavily with the conservative base.
In contrast, legislators from otherwise liberal urban cores or Hispanic areas in deep South Texas are frequently sympathetic to the cause of school choice. To pick one example, a survey last year by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that 80% of Hispanics favor school choice, compared with 66% of voters overall. In other words, in Texas the politics of the education debate are turned upside down.
The result is that school-choice legislation has faced fierce debate whenever it has been introduced. This is the most serious push on the issue since 1995, and it has built momentum after gaining the support of several state-wide elected officials, includingDan Patrick, the new lieutenant governor, whose position puts him at the head of the Texas Senate.
In an era where Texas is leading the way in nearly every sphere—including job creation, economic growth and entrepreneurship—it shouldn’t lag in educational freedom. It doesn’t suit the Lone Star temperament to accept second best. Texas legislators, unlike too many of their peers in other states and in Washington, D.C., sensibly meet infrequently: only five out of every 24 months. Yet this small window for action can produce changes that reverberate throughout the country.
This year, lawmakers should seize the opportunity to leapfrog other states by enacting universal educational freedom, putting Texas in a position of leadership. Texas is a bellwether—it is, as the saying goes, where the future comes to be born. If it can succeed in giving all parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their children, then reformers may be able to do the same elsewhere.
That is what is at stake in the Texas Legislature this year—and why education advocates across America should take note.
Mr. Grusendorf is the director of the Center for Education Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served in the Texas House from 1987 through 2007. Mr. Barba is a policy analyst at TPPF’s Center for Education Freedom.