School choice is on the GOP primary ballot in Texas

For Texans, the most important issue of the upcoming legislative session might be decided in the GOP primary on March 5: Will Republicans finally succeed in building a school choice coalition in the Texas House?

School choice empowers students and families by making education funding transferable. Instead of artificially limiting financing to public schools, programs like school vouchers pay for tuition at private schools. Even more innovative are education savings accounts, which can be used not only for private schooling but homeschooling, tutoring, counseling, books and a host of other approved education expenses.

Public opinion decisively favors school choice. It’s gotten even more popular since the pandemic; 29 states and the District of Columbia currently have at least one school choice program, and 11 of those states have universally accessible K-12 programs. 

But Texas does not. The Texas legislature has gotten close several times, but multiple Republican holdouts, who mistakenly assume school choice will harm their districts, have sided with Democrats to kill reforms. 

That may soon change. Twenty-one Texas House Republicans voted against school choice in the previous legislative session. Each of these representatives now faces a primary challenge or is not seeking reelection. Gov. Greg Abbott, a staunch school choice proponent, has endorsed several of these challengers, and Sen. Ted Cruz has also vowed his support.

GOP opponents of education freedom usually come from rural districts. They argue their constituents are perfectly happy with public schools. But in the very next breath, they claim transferable education funding will destroy those schools.

Of course, these arguments can’t both be true. If parents are happy with their schools — and in rural districts, it seems they are — then they won’t take their funding elsewhere. It’s illogical to argue that no one wants education freedom and also that giving people education freedom will result in drastic change.

The benefits of school choice are greatest in failing urban districts, especially those with large minority populations. These students, often struggling due to socioeconomic disadvantage, also suffer through inadequate schooling that doesn’t prepare them for the rigors of the modern job market. We have mountains of evidence showing that school choice improves educational outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates. Other measures — such as parental satisfaction, civic participation and costs to taxpayers — also improve. School choice can be the solution for these students, finally delivering true equality of opportunity.

The merits of school choice are obvious — the problem in Texas is the Republican holdouts. Some of these representatives are likely well-intended but misinformed. While that may not be a moral failing, it does suggest a lack of prudential judgment sufficient to disqualify them from public office.

But many of these legislators oppose school choice because the largest interest group in their district is the public school system. School choice won’t harm students or schools, but teachers unions, education bureaucrats and others are worried it will diminish their government-granted privileges. That’s not a good enough reason for Republican representatives to act against their party and their constituents. Yet act against them they do — often while taking campaign contributions from teachers unions and sending their own kids to private school.

School choice is massively popular in Texas. Only 37 percent of Texans think the existing system delivers satisfactory results. 68 percent of adults, and 72 percent of school parents, support education savings accounts. The platform of the Republican Party of Texas endorses “comprehensive school choice.” This should be a no-brainer. For too long, interest-group machinations and insider dealing have stymied parents’ and students’ right to a quality education.

There is a tide in public affairs. School choice will likely remain popular, but we must not lose the moment. We can’t let Texas fall behind states like Arizona and Florida that have embraced education freedom. It’s time for Texas Republican voters to provide an unequivocal demonstration of support for school choice.

Alexander William Salter is an economics professor in the business school at Texas Tech University, a research fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute and a State Beat fellow with Young Voices.

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