Parental choice in education comes to forefront
FORT WORTH — Is now the right time to establish education savings accounts for Texas families?
When Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation calling for a special legislative session to begin Oct. 9, he listed education savings accounts as his top priority. In the accompanying statement, he said, “Together, we will chart a brighter future for all Texas children by empowering parents to choose the best education option for their child.”
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops also supports parental choice, stating that the Church teaches that “parents have the right and responsibility to determine the best education for their children, and the government should cooperate with parents in providing that education, including funding non-public options.”
Bishop Michael Olson concurred, stating in a Sept. 26 letter to priests and principals of the 17 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Worth, “It is very important that we do everything within our capacity both not to further diminish our public schools and to foster access for an excellent education in our Catholic schools, especially for children who are trapped within failing public schools and whose parents have no viable option for educating their children within the current system.”
Furthermore, public sentiment in Texas now trends toward parental choice in education, said Leo Linbeck III, the CEO of Aquinas Companies and board chair of Families Empowered and Seton Education Partners. He spoke to a small group of parents, grandparents, and Catholic school boosters on Oct. 5 at a meeting hosted by the Advancement Foundation for the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.
According to Linbeck, the COVID-19 pandemic generated several parental concerns about public education: the need for in-person education, dissatisfaction with the curriculum, and a normalization of values contrary to Church teaching. He added, “Suddenly parents were looking for options and looking for more control,” and he has perceived a “dramatic change . . . in parents’ perception of the public education system.”
Although the coronavirus has waned, support for school choice hasn’t, Linbeck stated.
What is an education savings account?
Although lawmakers in Austin are negotiating details, the general consensus of the preferred way for Texas to implement parental choice in education seems to be education savings accounts. The ESA works like a flexible spending account: funds are assigned to a parent, who can use them to pay for a variety of education-related expenses such as tuition at private or faith-based schools, school fees, tutoring, education therapies, and transportation.
The amount would be roughly equivalent to the cost of educating a student in the public sector. Any unused funds would roll over into subsequent years for the student.
The application process would be universal — so all parents or guardians could apply — but priority will be given to families who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program and students with a learning disability.
According to a statement by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, “Through a well-designed parental choice program, families with fewer financial resources will no longer be limited to their local public school and will be able to consider additional educational opportunities.”
The TCCB also insists that legislation include “robust safeguards for the autonomy and religious liberty of private schools.”
The road ahead
The Texas State Legislature has considered a school voucher system as early as 1956, but to date it has met a bipartisan veto.
With support for school choice from the governor, bishops, and parents, will education savings account legislation be enacted in 2023?
This year, Abbott has made parental choice a priority, visiting almost 20 private schools across the state (including Nolan Catholic High School) to address parents and educators. If the legislation does not pass, the governor has proposed calling repeated special legislative sessions to pass parental choice legislation or endorsing primary challengers to Republicans who vote against the legislation.
Bishop Olson, along with the other bishops in the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, have urged parishes and Catholic schools to learn more about Catholic teaching on parental choice and to convey their support to state representatives and senators. Bishop Olson has also met with legislators and testified about parental choice in education in the Texas Senate and the House of Representatives in committee hearings.
Eleven states have implemented ESA programs, from Arizona in 2011 to Florida in 2023.
Having observed ESA programs across the country, Linbeck projects that if the Texas legislature establishes an ESA program this October, the application portal could open in the spring and students could enroll in private or faith-based schools as early as August 2024.