The Texas AFT has bullishly pledged that it will never surrender in the war against school choice in Texas. That’s no surprise; I have watched teachers’ unions fight school choice all over this country for more than 20 years, often successfully. Lost dreams and opportunities for millions of children are the collateral damage.
Early in my career I worked in the Northeast. In New Jersey, teachers’ unions blocked school choice proposals over the objections of inner-city parents including a statewide coalition of African-American leaders. It was only years later, when now-U.S. Senator Cory Booker became mayor of Newark, that school choice programs were established, pulling that state’s educational system from the brink of ruin.
The New Jersey teachers’ unions didn’t make demands for more funding in public schools, like they have in Texas, because they’d already won the money war. Even 20 years ago, they had some of the highest per-pupil spending and teachers’ salaries in the country. I wrote at the time that the state of New Jersey was spending about the same amount as parents who sent their kids to Harvard but the money didn’t help. In Newark, the graduation rate was 4%.
Texas teachers’ union representatives said during testimony over current school choice proposals this session that no increase in school funding could induce them to support parental rights.
When I first moved to Texas, I was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, where I watched teachers’ unions and the newspaper demonize Texas Public Policy Foundation founder, Dr. Jim Leininger, for creating a privately funded program that would pay the tuition of any student who wanted to leave the notoriously low-performing Edgewood Independent School District. Dr. Leininger and others invested $50 million for the 10-year program. The school district is still bitter about it, even though results showed increased graduation rates for those inner-city kids who participated in the very popular program.
In addition to private school tuition, Leininger’s program would also have paid for out-of-district tuition for Edgewood students who wanted to attend another public school. Education bureaucrats wouldn’t let that happen. Applicants from the program were rejected.
Think about that scene. A poor child, probably a Hispanic child, from a bad school showed up at a top performing school in San Antonio with funding to pay out-of-district tuition. The child was turned away.
What kind of school official would do that? What teachers’ union or school board member would allow that to happen? How can some of those same people stand up with straight faces today and pretend that their opposition to school choice is based on their concern for children?
I watched the Texas House block school choice for at least four sessions. One 2015 image etched in my memory is a gaggle of Democrat state representatives—many of them African-American and Hispanic, huddled around the front mic of the House smugly attacking school choice, pretending they had the moral high ground.
Many of those elected representatives were private school graduates. Others sent their own children to private schools. However, by standing against school choice, they denied the children of their own constituents, often trapped in the worst schools in the state, any hope of going to a better school. The level of hypocrisy and elitism was staggering.
This is particularly damning when you consider the results of a study published in the Urban Review in 2013 that found that “high achieving black males who attend private high schools are dramatically more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than similar students attending public schools.”
A majority of Texans support school choice in every poll including nearly 60% of Black Texans, even though most of them also vote Democrat, and killing school choice is part of the Texas Democrat Platform. Texas parents also know that Florida schools went from 33 in the nation to No. 1 by establishing a comprehensive school choice program.
Most parents are like Texas parents. I lived in New York City in the 1990s when public schools were not only dismal, they were dangerous. Nobody I knew, including the lowly underpaid secretaries and custodians in the building where I worked, sent their kids to a public school, because no responsible parent would do that. They worked as many extra jobs as they needed to in order to pay tuition and get their kids in a school where they would have a chance. There is still no real school choice in New York except charter schools and teachers’ unions work tirelessly to close those down.
Parents care about their kids, but there’s very little evidence that education bureaucrats do. Twenty years ago, I interviewed a couple members of the Newark School Board about why they believed the school district should provide them with a car—which it did. One member told me it was absolutely necessary because he had to get to lots of athletic events and with school district plates, he could park without getting a ticket. He didn’t see any relationship between his car and the 4% graduation rate.
I thought the car story was just a New Jersey thing, until I found out that in Texas today, the superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, whose base annual salary is $521,000, also gets an additional $24,000 car allowance. No doubt he has a lot of athletic events to attend too—just like nearly every parent who lives in his district and pays his enormous salary with their property taxes.
Even if you believe that pouring more money into our public schools would make the schools better, and we have mountains of evidence that it won’t make any difference, it wouldn’t fix them in time to impact the lives of the kids who are in school today. If your child is in a school where he or she is not thriving, then you want to find a pathway out of that school and into another that works for your child as soon as possible.
That’s why parents across Texas are fighting so hard for school choice. They know that regardless of what Texas decides to do on the issue of school funding, their child cannot wait for another session or a better political climate.
This is their year. Every class in school now is the class of 2023. They only get one shot.