Texas rural schools wary of state money to private schools

Granger ISD school building (KXAN Photo)
Granger ISD school building (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Monday, public school advocates challenged supporters of a new “school choice” proposal, Education Savings Accounts. Thousands of Texans are expected to descend on the Capitol Tuesday to push lawmakers to give the state funding per child — around $5,500 — over to parents to decide their educational route.

It’s “National School Choice Week” and the Coalition for Public Schools wanted to push the alternative side before the big rally.

“We need to focus on properly and adequately funding our current public school system. I think we’re in a position in Texas where we shouldn’t be looking at funding two separate school systems when we need to focus on funding one quality school system, which is where the vast majority of our students attend,” said Dr. Charles Luke from the President of the Coalition for Public Schools.

In an idea expected to be filed as a bill this week, money could be used to home school children or tuition for private, parochial or charter schools. Many parents say it would give them more freedom, but rural districts across the state fear the idea.

Superintendent of Granger ISD Randy Willis runs a district of 438 students. For more than 100 years it’s been the soul of the town. “I like to say we’re a private school with a public school education because we have about 12 to 13 per class,” said Superintendent Willis.

School districts are funded by local property tax dollars. Property-wealthy districts pay mostly for their own district while property-poor districts get a funding boost from the state. If the state gives out public money to private schools Willis fears the pot of state money will shrink and less money will be available to boost rural districts like his. “If I added more taxes to it, I wouldn’t get that much money anyway. So it becomes really an equity issue,” said Willis.

But the soon to be filed Senate Bill 3 has many senators lined up looking to co-sponsor the idea. Education Savings Accounts would act similar to Health Savings Accounts where Texans opting into the program will be issued a card worth $5,500 to be spent on educational materials or tuition.

“What these programs do is focus on the student, what’s best for the student, not what’s best for the bureaucracy,” said Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas.

The senator says Education Savings Accounts will improve rural districts by adding competition to a places with few options. “If there is a demand for private schools in rural areas and these students aren’t being served, then I think a private school will spring up,” said Sen. Huffines.

It’s one of the hottest debates this session and the biggest push back comes from schools who’ve been in their communities for decades, in Granger’s case, more than a hundred years.

“This is what we do,” said Superintendent Willis. “They like these small roots. So it’s extremely important that we continue to provide this high quality education in our rural settings.”

Republicans from rural Texas districts have rarely supported such ideas as Education Savings Accounts. The idea is being pushed heavily by the Texas Senate.

A rally in support of Education Savings Accounts is scheduled for Tuesday morning at the Capitol. More than 4,000 people are expected to attend along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott.

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