Vouchers: “The Lost Cause” Fight of Our Generation

Public education is the tie that binds our nation and state together. Despite our history as Americans and Texans brutally divided by class, race, and gender, educators have — since our earliest days — fostered the collective identity and imagined community we call the United States. By instilling in countless generations of increasingly diverse students the literature and history behind the idea of “E Pluribus Unum,” public schools have made out of many students one nation. But, we stand — once again — at a crossroads. Texas public education and democracy itself are under attack, and it is time to declare that we choose the unity of diversity built on the bedrock of publicly-funded community schools. 

Despite the overwhelming support for public schools and the consistent rejection of vouchers, anti-democratic forces running our state are promising legislation — the details of which are yet to be determined — to undo generations of struggle that followed the Brown v. Board (1954) decision. Almost 70 years ago, Texas governor Allan Shivers responded to the Warren Court’s rejection of the separate but equal doctrine by establishing the Texas Advisory Committee on Segregation in the Public Schools. The report and recommendations produced by the 40-person all-male and all-white committee included classic neo-confederate claims of “states’ rights” and attempted to deny the supremacy of the federal government in our society. The report also recommended policymakers create a system to use public education dollars to pay private school tuition for white supremacist parents who wanted to reject desegregation efforts at all costs — just not at their own expense. That bill, like many to follow, died an appropriate death before having the chance to become law. 

Vouchers are, and have been, a favored tactic against efforts to make our public education system more equitable. As early as 1955, the White Nationalist movement that desired a whites-only United States used a variety of tools to resist or delay desegregation. Vouchers were so common among those grasping to save Jim Crow from drowning in the sea of history that the same Supreme Court that decided Brown v. Board routinely ruled against legislation intended to use public education dollars for private, segregated schools. 

Fast forward 60 years and the conditions are different, but the goals are the same. In 2017, vouchers were cloaked under the moniker “Education Savings Accounts.” This time, the forthcoming bill escalates recent broadsides against the Long Civil Rights Movement. Attacks on ethnic studies and the movement for culturally relevant curriculums along with AstroTurf efforts targeting LGBTQ students and the books reflecting their experiences have both been precursors to the push for vouchers. Each of these issues is routinely cited as justification for the elimination of public schools in our state. 

Texans, Black, brown, and white, have a long history of working to remove white supremacy and White Christian nationalism from our state’s public education system. Generations of students, parents, teachers, and communities risked their lives and their futures to fight for the gains vouchers threaten today. Class sizes, culturally relevant curriculums, and the very right to attend school and be the person you know yourself to be were all achieved through the struggle and sacrifices of the Long Civil Rights Movement. For example, before the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican American children in Texas were often beaten and humiliated for speaking Spanish. Today, bans on young trans people participating in sports prevent Texas children from being themselves. Once again, justice- and equality-minded Texans, like our Black, brown, and white forebears, are fighting the anti-American forces using children’s lives to attack public education and the democracy it sustains.

The Brown decision was a wake-up call for the lost-cause folks. Angry and defeated, some white Americans clung to the racial dictatorship that excluded non-white Americans from opportunity and self-determination. In towns and communities across the nation — not just in the South — opponents of desegregation could be as violent and confrontational as they could be unassuming and strategic. For example, while some white Texans staged a full-on January 6th-style revolt in Mansfield, others such as academics and politicians began advancing more subtle defenses of white supremacy by attacking public education itself. If the government was going to mandate desegregation in public schools, then public education — like the federal government — was the problem. Nearly 70 years later, Texans are faced with another opportunity to reject the anti-democratic forces of white supremacy threatening the hard-fought wins of the Civil Rights Movement.

Not only are vouchers a direct attack on post-Civil Rights Movement America, they are also just bad public policy. Texas funds public schools using formulas based on student attendance, and siphoning students out of public schools using vouchers hurts all students and threatens the entire system. This model is especially harmful to rural Texans who rely on public schools not only for their children’s education but also to serve as the institutional core of their community. Schools in rural areas are often a hub for social, recreational, and cultural life, and they play a vital role in improving community health.  

In a recent survey of private schools across Texas conducted by Every Texan, we found vast stretches of the state where there are no private schools to choose from, and in places like Midland and Odessa, the few private schools that do exist could never support the growing student population. Across the Midland/Odessa region, four private schools enroll a total of 2,162 students, while the Midland and Ector County school districts serve more than 57,000 students. The 84 private schools sampled statewide could only serve one of those districts. 

The Texas public school population is 5.3 million students across 1,200 districts and almost 9,000 campuses. Private schools are not a choice for millions of rural Texas students, and even in the cities where most private schools are located, vouchers will lock lower-income students and families in perpetually underfunded and under-resourced segregated schools. 

In 2017, voucher legislation offered Texans a deal that would have taken 75% of the previous year’s per-student formula funding from the system, 90% if the student qualified for special education services. Texas, on average, spent $9,065 per student in 2016, which means that the vouchers offered by SB 3 in the 85th regular session were only worth $8,229 ($9,876 when adjusted for 2022 inflation). Of the private schools we looked at, only 27 had tuition less than what SB 3 would have offered, far out of reach of the 17 most elite institutions that charge tuition three times that amount. The inaccessibility of tuition does not even account for the cost of books and extracurricular activities, or the “right” private schools will have to deny admission to whomever they want. Vouchers are not serious public policy simply because they have no chance at being, nor are they designed to be, an effective education solution for every Texas student. 

Private schools cannot accommodate the growing number of Texas children who are constitutionally guaranteed a free, high-quality education. If established under the current leadership, vouchers will be used to further dismantle the hard-fought unity of diversity in Texas public schools. The same forces pushing vouchers are also working to undermine our faith in the American government by attacking our elections process. Protecting our system of free public schools is essential to the survival of the American experiment. The truths we hold to be self-evident and the values of E Pluribus Unum, that generations of Texans made more equal and more reflective of American diversity, are only possible if we fortify the citadel of public education in the next Texas Legislative Session. Texans have rejected vouchers for almost 70 years. Looking ahead to 2023, Texans must, once more, reject vouchers and embrace public education.

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