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Lawmaker, Parent Or Educator, Emotions Run High In School Choice Debate

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
The Morales Family. From left to right: Enzo, Orlando, Kelly, and Antone.

The term “school choice” could mean different things to different people. This legislative session, the term will be used to describe plans that would allow parents to choose private schools and pay for that tuition with public education dollars.

Critics call that kind of choice a “voucher,” and in their view, those public dollars would be put to better use differently.  

Orlando and Kelly Morales have two boys, four-year-old Antone, and two-year-old Enzo. Both children attend a private preschool at Monte Vista Montessori, and they’re likely to continue in the private school when they reach first grade. Orlando says it’s a good fit for their older son. “I felt like I was kind of holding him back by keeping him at home, he had expressed a desire to go to school. The only places that would take a kid in at three, were the private schools.”

Private school, of course, comes with a price tag. In this case it’s quite a lot. “We pay yearly, and it is a little bit less than eight grand per child,” says Orlando. As homeowners in the San Antonio Independent School District, the Morales’ also pay thousands each year in school property taxes, which are the biggest source of money for public schools. 

Kelly Morales believes tax-paying parents who want to put their children in private schools should be able to use some of their school tax dollars to help pay for private tuition. She thinks school vouchers or scholarships would also improve public schools by fostering competition between schools for the better students. “If they know that they would lose students, and potentially lose money, then perhaps they would up the ante and try and apply for other programs to be able to get more money, or try and attract new students,” says Kelly.

Her husband, though, has a slightly different take. “I’m going to have to disagree with Kelly on this,” he says. Orlando believes cutting education costs would be great, but he doesn’t want to shortchange public education. “I think the schools would miss the money. The money that they use from the school taxes, they use it, they use it in the band program, it’s used for the students. All over Texas, you’re seeing  school districts losing extra-curricular activities because they can’t afford them anymore.”

This debate in the Morales home is the school choice debate heating up in the Texas legislature again. Should public school dollars be used to help pay the cost of sending children to private schools?

Newly elected Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says yes. Last session, as a Republican senator, he tried to pass a bill that used public money to fund private scholarships or vouchers for children in low performing public schools. Here is what Patrick said last month when he was inaugurated. “If you’re a poor working mom in the inner city who does not have the money for private school, has to take the bus to work, and can’t move to the suburbs, that parent, that grandparent, that guardian does not have choice [to send their child to private school], and I’m going to fight to give that parent the choice for their children, because they deserve it.”

Republican State Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels agrees with Patrick. She’s filed a bill that would allow some parents to use 60 percent of what the state spends on their children to pay for private tuition vouchers. “We can empower the parents to make the best decision for their children, expand their opportunities for traditionally underserved students, and save tax payers billions,” she says.

Educators are among those lining up support to keep the voucher legislation from passing. Brian Woods is the superintendent at Northside ISD. “What I think you see happening though, is that school choice is being co-opted to mean taking public funds and giving them to private or for-profit institutions. That’s where I and the members of our board have a real problem with this notion.”

Woods also wants to know if private schools will have to meet the same accountability standards if they take public money.

While the debate heats up in Austin, and in homes around the state, there is at least one thing the Morales’ agree on. “For the last two years it’s been like, ‘holy cow, where are we coming to come up with 8,000 dollars?’ We’ve been scrambling a lot,” says Orlando. Sending children to private school is almost always expensive. But it’s a choice many are willing to make, by whatever means possible.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules