On October 18th, Texas Monthly’s Forrest Wilder dropped the motherload — a 4,500 word treatise supposedly uncovering a diabolical scheme “to send taxpayer dollars to private schools,” warning that similar plots were already underway elsewhere in the state.
Wilder’s story is as follows. The outgoing superintendent of Wimberley Independent School District, a small school district in central Texas, in kahoots with several nonprofits and the Texas Education Agency, would establish a new charter school named the Texas Achievement Campus. Seems innocuous enough, no? Wrong!
“The school,” Wilder declared, “would only exist on paper.” In reality, the funds would be used “to send taxpayer dollars to private schools of their choice at ‘no cost to their families’” — in other words, a voucher. Even more worrisome is the fact that the nonprofits want to replicate this model in other districts around Texas.
The article is not published as an opinion piece but makes three core claims, regardless: that the proposed Texas Achievement Campus is a clandestine operation; that school choice supporters were historically motivated by racism, and are currently motivated by homophobia; and that teachers and administrators “cite considerable evidence” that vouchers “drain money from struggling public schools while subsidizing wealthy parents who can already afford to pay private school tuition.”
These claims, to put it simply, are hogwash.
To begin, the Great Texas Achievement Campus Conspiracy is a nothingburger — the model that was proposed in Wimberley is quite similar to that employed by Prenda’s tuition-free microschools, which educate thousands of children in a half dozen states. And in Arizona, Prenda’s model continuously arouses similar, frivolous complaints from activists who have a bone to pick with charter schools.
Furthermore, there’s nothing nefarious about schools contracting out instructional services to another entity. School districts contract out services all the time, mostly to save money and avoid wasteful bureaucratic processes. That being said, contracting actively benefits students. A 2013 study, which analyzed more than 1,000 schools in Texas over 12 years, found that schools who contracted out instructional services saw increased student performance at a statistically significant level.
As much dismay as the word “privatization” may cause for the public education establishment, they’re already dancing with the devil, and they’re doing so because the devil delivers results.
Secondly, Wilder’s article gets the history of vouchers all wrong. It is true that there were isolated instances of states considering school choice policies for racist reasons. But school choice’s anti-racist resume is far longer. Milton Friedman, for one, recognized by 1962 that competition amongst schools could facilitate efforts at integration, and most choice advocates welcomed court rulings that desegregated the education system with open arms.
In addition, vouchers were not some 20th century contrivance designed to destroy public education. In the early 1790s, founding father Thomas Paine argued that states should “allow for each of those children ten shillings a year for the expense of schooling for six years each, which will give them six months schooling each year, and half a crown a year for paper and spelling books.” Sounds an awful lot like a voucher, if not an education savings account.
In any case, vouchers are not racist, and families who desire them are not homophobes. As shocking as it may seem for those who consider traditional public schools to be sacred cows, some families would rather fire up the grill. A little competition hurts nobody.
Finally, the “considerable evidence” that vouchers “drain money from struggling public schools while subsidizing wealthy parents” is nowhere to be found. That’s not a figure of speech — Wilder doesn’t cite a source in that section of the article. But even if he had, it would still be a misrepresentation of much of the scholarly literature on vouchers.
The vast majority of school choice programs are either means-tested or limited to certain disadvantaged groups. That means that the “wealthy parents who can already afford to pay private school tuition” are not included. The claim is just factually wrong.
In reality, school choice programs actually generate savings for taxpayers and districts. A 2012 study found that “school choice programs that allow school districts to retain funding for any fixed costs [do] not harm the fiscal health of public schools or decrease resources available to students who remain in public schools.” In other words, if a school district accrues as much property tax revenue as normal, and loses students to choice programs, then the school district will be able to spend more per student. The only ones who suffer are administrators, who find it more difficult to raise their salaries, and teachers unions, who then have to tread union dues with greater care.
All in all, Texas Monthly’s Earth-shattering report is built on nothing and contains oodles of false information. Any discerning reader could pick apart the flaws. Everyone, no matter how hard they try to be neutral, has an agenda. But it would be helpful if more journalists read a thing or two before making their agenda known to the world.