School-choice bill in Texas Senate loose on accountability

Posted by Patrick Driscoll on

With the Senate confirmation of school-choice super-advocate Betsy DeVos as secretary of education this week, backers of the school-choice bill in the Texas Senate have a strong advocate in Washington.

Backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Senate Bill 3 — its low number indicates the priority the lieutenant governor gives it — will face powerful headwinds in the House.

The Texas House of Representatives has for years been a graveyard for voucher bills, which in essence is what SB3 is, despite the understandable avoidance of that word by its backers.

But this bill may generate even more resistance than previous ones. A major issue for House members in the past has been accountability. Two years ago, when Lt. Gov. Patrick wanted to allow more publicly funded charter schools to be created in Texas, he had to make closing down poorly performing charter schools easier in order to get the bill passed by the House.

But the bill now being considered in the Senate is more than weak on accountability. It is hostile to it. The only senator from the San Antonio area cosponsoring the bill is Donna Campbell.

Schools, as well as tutors and services used by home-schooling parents, must be accredited, but the law also provides the following:

“The comptroller, the (Texas Education) agency, the State Board of Education, any other state agency, or any school district may not regulate the educational program of an education service provider or vendor of educational products that receives funds distributed under the program.”

They also may not “exercise control” over any school or service parents choose.

“A private school may not be required to modify the school's creed, practices, admissions policies, curriculum, performance standards, or assessments to receive funds distributed under the program.”

This appears to allow discrimination by the schools, something charter schools are not permitted to do. On the other hand, it would give public money to schools that teach that Islam as the only path to heaven, as well as schools that teach that the theory of evolution is a scientific hoax.

Perhaps most ambitiously, the bill would attempt to bind the hands of future legislatures. It says: “A private school voluntarily selected by a parent for the parent's child to attend or a parent who home schools the parent's child, with or without governmental assistance, may not be required to comply with any state law or rule governing the applicable educational program that was not in effect on January 1, 2017.”

Apparently, in case that provision fails, the bill also states that if any school or parent challenges a rule adopted by a state agency or officer, the burden of proof is with the state as to whether the rule is necessary and whether it imposes an undue burden.

Some schools in the program would be required to annually give students norm-referenced tests or other appropriate assessment tests, but the law would not require the results to be disclosed to anyone.

This, of course, is in great contrast to our public schools and to charter schools.

Backers of the bill apparently have great confidence in the power of the free market to ensure that only high-performing schools would be chosen by parents. As the history of for-profit schools indicates, that is unschooled optimism. Charter schools originally were lightly regulated, but experience taught the Legislature that oversight was needed.

SB3 may or may not pass the Senate in anything like its current form, but it won’t get far in the House. There Democratic opponents are in a coalition with many rural Republicans. Small-town Texans tend to be pleased with their public schools, which are often nearly the only schools in town and, with their football teams, the source of community pride.

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