Website design by Martin Aldridge

Citizens’ Advocate • P.O. Box 557 • Coppell, TX 75019 • 972.462.8192 The page to turn to for all the latest news and photos we couldn’t fit in print. April 4, 2014 FEBRUARY 13, 2015

Will Voucher Plans Be the Next ‘Robin Hood’ in Texas?

By Jane Moore

In 1998, Rick Perry was in Coppell campaigning for Lt. Governor when he stopped by the Citizens’ Advocate office to talk about something he was obviously passionate about– private school vouchers to help underprivileged kids get out of “bad” schools.  

 Fast forward 17 years, and what sounded like an idea to help a small number of disadvantaged students has evolved into what could surpass “Robin Hood” as the issue to watch when it comes to funding for public education in Texas.  

With the state’s political shift even further to the right in last fall’s elections, plus the backing of some wealthy people, including longtime Perry donor Dr. James Leininger, the voucher idea– now often called “school choice”– has gained a lot of traction.

Coppell’s newly elected state officials– Senator Don Huffines, District 16, and District 115 Representative Matt Rinaldi– support the voucher movement, which creates a “free market” system where schools compete for students–  and for state money.

Coppell ISD Superintendent Dr. Mike Waldrip recently spoke to all the District PTO presidents about the voucher issue, which is before the State Senate this year.  Under the plan, the state would pay a reduced percentage of the state allotment per student as reimbursement for tuition for any private school. The state could then keep the remaining percentage of funds that would have gone to the public school.

“It’s a major concern because it’s funding,” said Waldrip.  “It’s a way for the state to save by reducing funding to public education.”

Waldrip said the state would save on benefit payments, including teacher retirement contributions every time a teacher left the public system to teach in a private school.

Senate Bill (SB) 276-Taxpayer

Savings Grants

Vouchers are called “Taxpayer Savings Grants” for Senate Bill 276 in the current state legislative session.  Under SB 276, parents would be paid up to 60 percent of the average state expenditure per student for tuition reimbursement for the private school of their choice– no strings attached. To calculate for this story how much such a voucher might be, the most current available Texas Education Agency per-student-expenditure of $8,276 was used.  That makes a voucher worth about   $5,000.  The bill, introduced by Senator Donna Campbell (R) New Braunfels also exempts private schools that take state money from any state regulations not currently in effect.  That includes state accountability tests like STAAR and the school rating system.  

Waldrip said the required testing and ratings are supposed to show accountability for use of public funds.  

“That has always been an argument,” Waldrip said.  “Now they’re giving this public money and there’s no accountability on how that money would be spent... It creates a private school industry of unregulated business being funded by tax money.”  

The plans have support from new Governor Greg Abbott, and especially from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, an outspoken voucher advocate.  While some insiders don’t expect a bill to get past the House this session, public educators are expecting a big push.  

“From all indications that we’ve heard, school choice is going to be fast tracked,” said Amy Beneski, associate executive director for government relations at Texas Association of School Administrators.  The group follows the legislature and stays in contact with elected officials.   

Follow the Money

 The voucher issue is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with pieces including the Texas Constitution, the idea of school competition, promises of tax savings, questions about educational and financial accountability, transparency, separation of church and state, curriculum requirements, kids with special needs, and more.   But in the current legislative session, the big push for vouchers focuses primarily on money, and there’s a lot of big money behind the movement.  

 Taxpayer Savings Grants (TSGP) will be a windfall to the Texas economy and education system, according to an analysis by the firm of Arthur Laffer, a Reagan-era economic advisor who is sometimes called “The Father of Supply Side Economics.” Laffer was hired by the Texas Association of Business and by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).  The TPPF was founded by Leininger, who continues to back former Governor Perry as he considers a presidential run.  

The 43-page Laffer report, called “The Texas Economy and School Choice,” predicts that a free-market system of school choice will create a boon of billions of dollars for Texas.  Not only will the state save 40 percent off the top for every student who chooses private instead of public school.  The economy will skyrocket when students who attend a school of their choice perform better and stay until graduation, earning and spending more money in Texas.   The report even predicts a reduction of crime rates.  According to the report, “the size of the Texas economy in ten years would be between $4.3 billion and $14.7 billion larger solely because of the budgetary impacts of TSGP.”

Coppell resident and former District 115 Representative Bennett Ratliff called the Laffer report “propaganda” that is being circulated to legislators to drum up support for SB 276.

“I’m not buying it,” said Ratliff, who added that other “internal” documents focus instead on how much money such a plan would infuse into private schools.  Based on numbers from the Texas Private School Association’s estimate, there are 250,000 kids currently in private schools.  That’s $1.25 billion of state money to private schools immediately if all those students took a voucher.  And if the estimated 300,000 homeschoolers in Texas took vouchers, that would mean another $1.5 billion, for a total of $2.75 billion per year.

“That’s just for kids who are doing it now,” Ratliff said.

Ratliff is a Republican who comes from a high-profile political family that supports public education.  Elected to the District 115 seat in 2012, he said he was approached last year about pledging support for a platform set by some wealthy Texans whose plans include vouchers.  Those people include Tim Dunn, Monty Bennett and Jeff Sandefer, and all have ties to private schools or interests in corporate-run charter schools.  

“I gave them my opinion and the next day they were attacking me on social media,” said Ratliff.  “...   There’s a ‘millionaire boys club’ out there buying votes.”

Ratliff was subsequently edged out of his seat by Irving attorney Rinaldi in the March 2014 Republican primary.  

“So Many Questions”

 It’s impossible to predict how a voucher plan would impact a high-performing district like Coppell.   While there are certainly no low-performing schools in CISD, a voucher for $5,000 per student would be a significant supplement to private school tuition that might persuade some families to leave local schools. Using CISD numbers, if 100 current students left the District for private schools, the financial loss would be roughly $575,000– enough to pay 10 teachers.  

CISD leaders have many questions and concerns about the voucher issue, including how such a plan would pass the Texas Constitution’s requirement to “provide a public school system that ensures all students have access to a quality education.”

Board member Susie Kemp said private schools can deny enrollment to students for various reasons, including educational performance, disciplinary problems, or special needs. Would that mean public schools end up with all the kids who were hard to teach?

If the vouchers are supposed to benefit the economically disadvantaged, will private schools be required to offer free breakfast and lunch like public schools do?  What about transportation?  Will all families have a way to get their kids to the “choice” school?  The state requires public schools to provide free bus service for students who live more than two miles from their school.  Would private schools receiving taxpayer money be free from rules about financial transparency, open meetings, and teacher background checks?

CISD Board President Anthony Hill wondered why the state would create a system that devalues the public schools, when good schools are the bedrock of a city, as people in Coppell are well aware.    

“What’s the impact on the community?” Hill said.  

Waldrip said the state already offers alternatives for students in low-performing schools.  There are charter schools and public school grants, which allow a student to transfer to high-performing schools within their own or a neighboring district.  And for the roughly 15 percent of schools that need help, why not focus on those instead of implementing a massive voucher program?

“So many questions have not been answered,” Kemp said.  

What will $5,000 a year buy?

 Leaders also wonder where kids can attend a private school for $5,000 per year. A 2013 Dallas Business Journal list of maximum tuition amounts at 35 private  schools in the DFW area showed the lowest  at $11,700  (Starpoint School-Lab School at TCU - Fort Worth).   If the vouchers are meant to help students in low-performing schools, where can they find good schools for what the state pays?

“Are they even targeting the audience they say they are?” Kemp asked.  

Sidestepping the issues of   separation of church and state, the Laffer report suggests that vouchers would cover the cost of most private parochial elementary schools.  The Citizens’ Advocate did a quick check of some area parochial elementary schools’ lowest rates, as follows: Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, $9,500 for Pre-K; Mary Immaculate Catholic School in Farmers Branch, $5,800 for church parishioners who contribute at least $800 a year to the church, or $8,890 for non-parishioners; Carrollton Christian Academy, $5,000 for Pre-K, $6,100 for kindergarten, and $7,870 for grades one through five.  

Of course many new private schools would surely appear if a voucher plan was passed.

“It will create a cottage industry,” said Board President Hill.

TASAs Beneski wondered if some people might even create their own private schools for their families.

“Who’s to say I don’t just start my own private school with my own house and my own kids and pocket the money?” Beneski said.  

Reaching Out to the New Regime

Coppell lost an empathic ear in Austin when Ratliff lost the District 115 seat, and CISD  last month reached out to Representative Rin-aldi and Senator Huffines by inviting them to visit some schools, including Cottonwood Creek Elementary and Coppell High School.  

“It was just amazing,” said Rinaldi, who said he grew up attending public school in Connecticut. “Teaching methods have changed so much and they’re really getting results.”

Rinaldi said he supports the voucher plans/school choice because he believes education is too complex for government to produce results.

“In the end do we want a system that relies on competition for accountability or on government standards?” he said.

Rinaldi said accountability could be measured by graduation rates and suggested that high-performing districts like Coppell might be “freed up” and deemed exempt from some of the current accountability requirements.

SB 276 will surely have the support of Huffines, who narrowly defeated longtime State Senator John Carona in last fall’s election.  Although he lives in high-performing Highland Park ISD, he reportedly home-schooled his children and said in a KERA interview that he supports teaching creationism on equal footing with science.

Huffines said he advocates “radical” changes to the state’s education system, and the Texas constitution should be changed to make it happen.  

“We need to radically change the Texas education system by restoring more local tax money to the school districts.  We must change the constitution to enable the legislature to do so.”  (For clarification, voucher money would go to individuals living in a school district, not the district itself.)

Once the constitution is changed, Huffines said creating competition in schools is the next priority, but he said Coppell has nothing to worry about.

“Coppell has an excellent school district, it should not fear school competition as the goal is to always reach for perfection, to empower parents, students, and faculty. Texas must lead the entire country in educating our children,” he said.  

Superintendent Waldrip said it was good to give Huffines and Rinaldi a look at what’s happening in local public education.   

“We really appreciate them coming,” said Waldrip. “We’d have them back any time.”

What's Next?

Both Ratliff and Rinaldi said there’s probably not enough support for vouchers in the House this session. But with Lt. Governor Patrick pushing the issue hard, it has staying power.  Waldrip said while it is hard to know what a voucher system would do to CISD, the possibilities don’t seem favorable.

“We feel it has the potential to cheapen what we offer, which is a high quality education,” he said.

Waldrip said CISD is willing to discuss the issue with any groups who are interested.

“We’ll talk to anybody,” he said.

 To follow the progress of SB 276, which is currently in the Senate Education Committee, use the web address, and click on the link to Bill Lookup.  Enter SB 276 in the bill number.  There’s also a Bill Status Hotline at 877-824-7038, which is toll free in Texas.  

To reach state officials that represent the Coppell area, contact: Rinaldi, phone 512-463-0468, fax 512-463-1044, mail P.O. Box 2910, Austin, TX 78768; and Huffines, phone 512-463-0116, mail P.O. Box 12068, Capitol Station, Austin, TX 78711.

Senator Jane Nelson and Representative Ron Simmons also represent small parts of the Coppell area.  To confirm who represents a specific location, use the  web address and enter the address in the “Who Represents Me?” box.