Special to The Texas Catholic
AUSTIN — Recognizing education is one of the best means to escape poverty and that parents are best suited to determine the right educational choice for their children, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB) supports a set of bills increasing parental choice in education. The bills have been filed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, Sen. Brandon Creighton, Sen. Mayes Middleton, Sen. Angela Paxton, Rep. James Frank, Rep. Brian Harrison, Rep. Jacey Jetton and Rep. Matt Shaheen.
In testimony Wednesday for SB 8, authored by Sen. Creighton, Bishop Michael Olson of the Fort Worth Diocese said, “While there are legitimate state interests involved with the education of children, these interests are always subordinate to the natural right of fathers and mothers to be the primary educators of their children. Fathers and mothers are the primary educators of their children, not the State.”
ESA bills before the committee by Sen. Creighton, Sen. Bettencourt and Rep. Frank provide parents with the opportunity to apply for an Education Savings Account (ESA), which would provide approximately $8,000 – $10,000 per year per student, if they were previously enrolled in public school or if they are entering Kindergarten.
In SB 2354/HB 4339, eligibility is limited to families whose income places them at 200% of the eligibility for the federal free and reduced lunch program (approximately $110,000 per year for a family of four).
“Parents would be able to apply these funds toward the specific educational needs of their children, including core instruction, instructional supplies, assessment, supplemental supports such as tutoring or therapy, co-curricular enrichment or transportation,” explained Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the TCCB. “This means parents are able to decide what is needed to help their child flourish and succeed.”
In his testimony, Bishop Olson outlined the criteria offered by the bishops regarding how they vet parental choice legislation for their support. That criterion includes:
- a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, ensuring students with the greatest academic and financial need are first in line;
- academic accountability which requires accreditation and the administration of a norm- or criterion-referenced assessment each year (current practice at accredited schools);
- financial accountability through random audits of ESAs (Education Savings Account) by a third party; and
- protections for the privacy, autonomy and religious freedom of participating schools ensuring that educators are not required to modify their creed, practices, admissions policies, curriculum, performance standards, or assessments to serve ESA students.
The TCCB supported all the bills in committee as the bishops support passing parental choice. Allmon noted that while the bishops support access to parental choice for all parents, the Texas Legislature will need to discern the appropriate prioritization, given limited funding and private school capacity. Allmon testified SB 8 could be improved “by prioritizing access to the ESA for students based on the individual students and families with the greatest academic and financial needs. There are many good ways to accomplish this and several other bills have sections with far more appropriate prioritization,” she said.
In the 32 states with ESA programs similar to those in the committee hearing, research shows the average performance of public schools is as good as, or better than, when these programs were first enacted. Evidence is also available which indicates school choice legislation has had modest, but statistically significant, positive effects on public school performance.
These bills would start the program with up to $500 million annually, and are expected to impact less than 60,000 students, which is a fraction (less than 1%) of total enrollment in public schools in Texas.
“Most students will continue to benefit from a public-school education, because the many advantages offered by public schools, such as sports and other extra-curricular activities, are attractive to families. At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect every public school to be everything to every child,” Allmon explained. “This is not a zero-sum game where private schools win, and public schools lose. It is a win-win for communities when all children can flourish in the educational setting best suited for them.”
For a full list of educational choice bills in which the TCCB have stated a position, visit txcatholic.org/88th-legislature-parental-choice-bills.
Approximately 2,000 Catholics will visit the State Capitol on Tuesday, March 28, to advocate for parental choice, a comprehensive background check system, and other bills which are aligned with the priorities of the TCCB. A rally on the south steps of the Capitol will begin at 11:30 am.