Let the market work for education

By Arlene Wohlgemuth

Texas’ commitment to competition and the free market has brought our state economic growth and prosperity that is the envy of the rest of the country. Unfortunately, in many cases we remain reluctant to apply these principles to Texas’ education system.

During the 83rd Texas Legislature, policymakers have an opportunity to reform our education system and make it more competitive and more efficient, benefiting thousands of students.

National School Choice Week is the perfect time to discuss these reforms.

Though we have many fine public schools to serve our large, diverse K-12 student population, the school that is physically closest to a student is not always going to be the best fit for that child.

This leads to one area of weakness that must be addressed: private school choice. Despite a national education climate that has become increasingly choice friendly, Texas has made little headway in recent years expanding educational choice in the form of statewide education scholarships or business tax credits.

The lack of progress shows up in a number of troubling statistics. For instance, in 2011-2012, Texas’ statewide attrition rate in public schools was 26 percent. We lost 103,140 students during the year. While there is no “silver bullet” that will fix these problems, creating education “Scholarships for Excellence” will give struggling students in poorly performing schools an alternative to dropping out. The impact would be particularly positive for low income students, who would finally have access to some of the freedoms afforded families with greater financial resources.

Texas should also create an education scholarship geared toward special-needs students. Florida’s McKay Scholarship is one potential model; using that design, students who are classified as special needs are eligible to receive a scholarship that equates to 100 percent of their tuition and fees at a private school of their choosing, or 100 percent of what it would cost to educate them at their local public school, whichever is less.

Critics will claim that these reforms will harm public schools. But the exact opposite is true. We have an example of this right here in Texas.

From 1998 to 2008, the privately funded Horizon Scholarship Program offered scholarships to all students living within the boundaries of San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD. Test results improved for both students who used a scholarship to attend a private school and for students who continued to attend Edgewood’s public schools. The district’s dropout rate decreased 30 percent during the run of the program. The Edgewood community also experienced nonacademic gains, such as increased teacher pay and property values.

Positive impacts of widespread school choice can be seen elsewhere, too. Indiana and Florida have seen testing improvements in participating students. The Florida Department of Education recently declared that its tax credit scholarship program, operational since 2001, has been of benefit to its public school system as a whole.

In addition to scholarship programs, there are measures Texas can take directed specifically at expanding choice within the public schools.

Texas should open up its public charter school system. The demand for them is unquestioned; the Texas Charter School Association recently counted more than 100,000 students on wait lists to attend public charters. That’s up from 56,000 two years ago, yet Texas still places a hard cap of 215 on the number of public, open-enrollment charters that are allowed to operate in the state.

We should also take measures to allow parents, educators, and taxpayers to take advantage of home rule districts and campus charter programs to bring control of the education system back home to the local community. Increasing parental and taxpayer voting rights is key to making these existing but unused programs work to improve educational choice in the public schools.

Allowing the education marketplace to operate freely will drive “bottom up” accountability in the entire Texas public education system. It is time to take these steps that will allow parents to take control of their children’s education and vastly improve low-performing schools across Texas.

 Executive Director and Director, Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation

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