School Vouchers Vs. School Finance Reform: A 2017 Legislative Preview

Nov 28, 2016

The divide over how Texas should educate its 5.3 million public school students will become clear during the 2017 legislative session. 

School vouchers and school finance reform are the two main education priorities for many lawmakers and lobbyists heading into the 2017 legislative session, and Texans should expect a battle between the groups that support these measures. 

Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

The divide is clear when talking to two public policy groups: the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities and the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation. CPPP says lawmakers should focus on the state’s school finance system by putting more money into it and making sure it’s fairly distributed. Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst for the group, says in 2017, she expects some attempts at a complete overhaul, while some lawmakers instead offer ideas for smaller tweaks.

“We give 20 percent more funding to economically disadvantaged students and ten 10 percent more to English Language Learner students," Villanueva said. "So we’ll probably see some bills adjusting those weights.”

But not everyone sees school finance as the way to improve public education.

“It has not been our biggest priority," said Stephanie Matthews with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "I think it’s something we will closely follow, we will closely monitor.”

TPPF is focused on creating options for parents besides their local public school—like school vouchers:

“There are so many ways Texans can be proactive in innovating for creative ways to allow children access to different educational opportunities and certainly to access different opportunities that are a good fit for them," Matthews said.

Villanueva with CPPP expects the main school voucher bill to focus on an education tax program, which gives parents money to spend on private school tuition, tutoring or other education related costs. Similar programs in other states usually focus on vouchers for special education students or economically disadvantaged students. 

“We’ve had a lot of positive conversation around finding ways to expand options for special needs community," said Matthews with TPPF. "Other options are for families that are caught in lower socioeconomic spectrum. So we’ve been please so far with conversations we’ve been having. Do we expect some obstacles? Of course.”

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says vouchers are a top priority for 2017. He and the Senators passed a voucher program in 2015, but over in the House, the Senate bill never even made it to the floor for a vote. Villanueva speculates that's because the House members have closer ties to their communities. And much of those communities are rural.

“When you look into these rural areas there’s not a lot of educational choice options," Villanueva said. "You don’t see a lot of private schools, things like that, and sometimes the school is the main employer and they’re the heart of these communities. So a lot of, I think, the House members see Texas in a different way.”

So the House isn't a fan of vouchers and Villanueva says the Senate doesn't care much for large scale school finance reform, especially if it means spending more money. That’s why CPPP  is pushing for some kind of cost study, public or private, to really see how much it costs to educate a child today.

“It’s been 30 years since we’ve gone through that exercise so we think it’s time for the legislature to do that again," Villanueva said.

Mathews with TPPF says she’s worried a study like that can be subjective.

"But yea, I mean, if someone can answer that question we’d all be in a better place from which to begin having the conversation about how much money do we need to fully fund, adequately fund education in Texas.”

The legislative session begins January 10, 2017.