January 29, 2013

School Choice Week 2013: School choice on trial in Texas

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

School choice was on the witness stand in this case out of Texas that I blogged about last fall. A school choice group called TREE is asking the court to declare the Texas school system unconstitutionally “inefficient.” As part of that lawsuit, the Heartland Institute’s Joseph Bast testified that a private scholarship program funded indirectly by tax credits, would allow low-income kids greater access to private schools while also saving taxpayer dollars. Further, such programs have had great success at increasing student performance.

Just yesterday, another witness testified that Texas charter schools cost taxpayers less money than regular public schools, because they do not get public funding for buildings. The Texas Charter School Association is asking for equal funding and for the court to support efficiency by lifting the statewide cap on charter school licenses. Currently, an estimated 56,000 Texas students are on waiting lists for charter schools.

In short, school choice is on trial in Texas. This fight was not started by TREE.  Six hundred Texas school districts sued the legislature asking for more money. The school districts claim that Texas public schools are inadequate because they need more money. These allegations are old hat.  Over the years school districts have recited this argument, relying on the Texas Constitution’s requirement for the state legislature “to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”  But while TREE did not start the fight, they are hoping to end it.

Until recently, “suitable provision” has been presumptively treated as “enough money.” But this time, a few school choice groups jumped into the fray to assert that more money is not always the answer. In fact, one witness, a Stanford University education researcher testified that spending is not correlated with performance. This is not a radical idea. The US is among the top spenders internationally for k-12 education, spending annually on average around $11,000 per student according to the NEA. Unfortunately, we still perform in the middle of the pack, worldwide.

Rather than make funding the scapegoat, TREE is asking the Texas court to consider other options. Schools of choice – private schools, public charter schools, and online programs – unlike regular public schools, must look for sources of efficiency and compete to win students. Students are not assigned to schools of choice; they must pick them. Competition inspires efficiency and creativity. Perhaps the Texas district court and its Supreme Court, which will inevitably hear the case on appeal, will agree. As the Texas Supreme Court said in 2005, in Neeley v. West Orange-Cove Consolidated School District, “[p]erhaps . . . public education could benefit from more competition, but the parties have not raised this argument.” This time around, the argument has been raised, and the Texas court has an amazing opportunity to tell the legislature that its constitutionally required “suitable provision” should include measures that give more families school choice.

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