Amplify Choice: Texas and School Choice

Everything is Bigger in Texas: School Choice Should Be, Too.

by Carine Martinez-Gouhier:

In 2015, the State of Texas is the envy of the rest of the United States. Thanks to its low taxes, a relatively small regulatory system, a limited government, Texas created more than 450,000 in 2014, the highest net nonfarm job growth in the nation. The Texas Model is thriving. The freer the markets, the more options people have for jobs, for products and services, and for opportunities.

Texas School RallyYet, there is something that the Lone Star State surprisingly falls short on: school choice. Currently, if you live in Texas and have children, you can homeschool them, send them to a traditional public school, or arrange for a charter school. If you can pay the tuition, you have the additional option of sending them to a private school. There is currently no grant or voucher program, no tax credit program, or other programs that would allow more flexibility in choosing a school for your children.

Public charter schools were authorized in Texas during the 74th Legislative session in 1995, with a cap on their number set at 215 from 1995 to 2014, increasing every year from 2014, up to 305 in 2019. Charter schools have the same academic and financial accountability as traditional public schools; they are tuition-free and accept all students. They are also open-enrollment schools: if there are more applications than spots available, they run a lottery.

Charter schools are popular because they have more flexibility in their method of education. Founders Classical that I mentioned in my previous post, has opted for a classical education, something that some families are looking for but rarely find in traditional public schools. Charter schools are often better at accommodating children with special needs, too. Different needs call for different kinds of educational methods. Sometimes, the one-fits-all method of traditional public schools doesn’t work.

Are the options currently available in Texas enough? I can’t help thinking about the 700+ waiting list for the 35 or so spots available next year at Founders Classical. This is just one example and there is no logical reason why the choice shouldn’t be extended. In fact, there are plenty of reasons in favor of allowing parents to have more options—options that allow everyone, from children and parents, to teachers and taxpayers, to come out as winners.

There are currently 41 programs operating in 24 states and Washington, DC that allow more flexibility to parents and their children. All is not lost for Texas, as several bills have been filed during the current 84th Legislature to try and remedy the problem. What are some of these other options?

Among the bills that have been filed so far, HB 1043 and SB 642 would create a tax credit scholarship: it would allow corporations to receive a tax credit for donations they would make to a scholarship fund administered by non-profit groups in order to help poor children in failing school districts. These children would then have the option to go to other schools.

Another bill, SB 276, would create a grant program that would make the money “follow” the children in the schools of their parents’ choice. The Taxpayer Savings Grant Program would allow any child who attended a Texas public school the year before or who is first entering a new school year in Texas, to receive a grant equal to the lesser of the tuition of a private school of their choice, or a maximum of 60% of the state average maintenance and operations expenditures per student. Not only would the State of Texas, and ultimately Texan taxpayers, save money for every child who would decide to enroll in a private school, parents would be able to choose school better fitted to the needs of their children.

Different studies confirm that the benefits of a taxpayer savings grant program to the State of Texas would be tremendous. In terms of state savings, taxpayers would be able to save at least between $476 million by the 5thyear of the program according to the Legislative Budget Board, to $1.7 billion over 5 years according to the Texas Education Agency, to $22 billion after the 12th year according to a Heartland Institute estimate.

Teachers would benefit too, as competition would create more schools: teachers would be able to negotiate higher salaries because of employer competition to hire the best among them. As a result, the quality of our children’s education would increase.

Children of parents who can afford to move to a better school district have a choice; not so with children from poor families who might well end up being stuck in a failing school district. Additionally, no two children are alike: more options mean the possibility to choose a school according to each of your children’s needs and aspirations. Giving more options to parents would benefit everyone along the line, from children and teachers to taxpayers. Texas is showing the United States what a successful economic model can be. It is high time that Texas also become an education model by allowing more choice for parents and children. Go big, Texas, as you know how!


Carine is a French national who immigrated to the United States to pursue her own happiness. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s degree in American Studies (specialized in corporate social responsibility) and works in public policy. She is particularly interested in issues related to economic freedom and laissez-faire
capitalism.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that HB 1043 and SB 642 would offer tax credits for corporate donations made to “a special fund administered by the state.” That has since been clarified as donations made to “a scholarship fund administered by non-profit groups.” 

Amplify Choice: Supporting School Choice is Being “Pro-Children”

by Carine Martinez-Gouhier:

The most enlightening experience in learning about school choice has been visiting a private school and a charter school in Washington DC, as well as a charter school in Texas. Talking with the principals, and most importantly the students, was the best way to understand what these alternatives to traditional public schools brought and how they planned to succeed.

School ChoiceIn Washington, DC, we first visited Archbishop Carroll High School, a catholic private high school. We were welcomed by the principal and groups of students that were eager to talk about their schools. Only 27% of Archbishop Carroll are Catholic. They come from 63 zip codes in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. 76% of them describe themselves as African-American.

We were separated into groups. Each group was accompanied by 2 students who had chosen a couple of classrooms to visit. We saw students that were eager to participate, with teachers walking around the classroom. Clearly teachers are, as we would often hear, “in front of their students” and not behind their desk. The average class size is 20-24 with an 11 to 1 student/teacher ratio. Students were amazingly focused. No computer, or tablet are used: the Principal explained that they chose not to use new technologies systematically, but are open to let student use their computer or tablet if they wish.

The application to enter Archbishop Carrol is the usual private school application: students’ scores, teacher recommendations, writing an essay, and interviewing both parents and students. The tuition for a year is about $18,000. A big part usually comes from scholarships (notably the Opportunity Scholarship Program) and fundraising from the school. The school insists families participate in paying the tuition too. Unfortunately, among about 100 students to whom they offer admission every year and who refuse it, about 60% renounce because of a lack of financial resources.

The second school we visited in Washington, DC was Achievement Prep, a charter school situated in Ward 8 “intentionally.” Achievement Prep expects a lot from its students and teachers, starting with calling them “scholars” and “platinum teachers.” “What we’re trying to do is to raise the bar,” explained Ms. Cannon, the Chief Academic Officer of the school.

The school opened in 2008 with just 2 grades, 3 classrooms, 67 scholars and a shared school. They now have 22 classrooms, and 400 scholars, grade 4-8.

The school functions on an extended work day, from 7.30 am to 4.15 pm. “Scholars come to us very far behind,” explained Ms. Cannon, sometimes up to 4-5 years behind. But she insisted: “We believe every one of our children can learn.” The school also expects parents to “enroll” with their children, meaning they play a crucial role in their children’s success.

The average classroom size at Achievement Prep is 22. What do they think about school choice? “We’re not just pro charter,” clarified Ms. Cannon “we’re pro children; we believe in competition.”

Although the Hill Country is very different from Washington, DC, I wanted to see what a charter school looked like in Texas. I had the opportunity to visit Founders Classical Academy. Dr. Kathleen O’Toole, headmaster of the charter school, kindly gave me a tour of several classrooms. The education there is a classical education and includes Latin. The curriculum is more demanding than in other schools, but Founders Classical believes in its children and considers challenges tend to motivate them. The first thing that struck me was the organization of the tables: all facing the teacher, theater-style, something I had last seen in France. The students, from kindergarten to grade 10, were barely distracted by us entering the room: they were focused on their teachers; they enjoyed the class and the lesson.

Teachers aren’t afraid of approaching several areas while focusing on one subject. Hence, learning to draw a dinosaur is also the occasion for children to learn about the extinct animals, and how they are named.

Founders Classical opened in August 2014 in Leander, TX. They have 2 classes per grade, K to 10, with an average class size of 22. For next year, about 35 spots will open in kindergarten, plus maybe a few more in other grades. The waiting list is over 700 though. Founders Classical is an open-enrollment charter: the spots will be attributed through a lottery.

My experience with visiting these three schools is overwhelmingly positive: the children looked happy, and they behaved with discipline and rigor. Those we talked to at Archbishop Carroll were reluctant to criticize traditional public schools, but underlined how Archbishop Carroll was able to give them what they lacked in public schools: to have teachers who knew them by their name, and who were eager to help; to be part of a valuable and safe community.

A lot is expected from children in these schools, especially since they often are behind when they first move from a traditional public school to one of these three alternatives, but expectations seemed to motivate them, as if having adults trust their capacity to succeed was boosting their will to succeed, and to work hard to reach that goal. They seemed thankful, too, the way you are for a great teacher or mentor. A mother whose daughter is a student at Archbishop Carroll summed it up best when she explained that the private school had “enabled [her daughter] to build self-esteem, to be a creative thinker.”

If such stories, featured for everyone to see in documentaries such as Waiting for Superman, or The Ticket, are not enough to make the case for school choice, it is hard to know what is.

Carine is a French national who immigrated to the United States to pursue her own happiness. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s degree in American Studies (specialized in corporate social responsibility) and works in public policy. She is particularly interested in issues related to economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism.

National School Choice Week: Five Themes that Helped Me Better Understand the Debate

by Carine Martinez-Gouhier:

National School Choice Week took place from January 25 to January 31 this year, and generated more than 11,000 events over the country. The Franklin Center hosted its Amplify Choice conference on January 30-31, a conference I took part in.

A Good EducationTo be honest, before joining the Franklin Center conference, my knowledge on school choice in the United States was basic and revolved more around the options available (public, charter, and private schools, homeschooling, vouchers, etc.) than the debate itself. I knew the options available in the United States were many compared to the country I come from, France. I saw America as much freer in that area. I did not know the extent of the opposition to letting children be educated outside the public school system, nor the opposition to have a education system that let schools compete.

The talks I attended during the conference, the schools we visited, and the discussions we had with students and parents were certainly eye-opening. Five key themes struck me as particularly important, not necessarily because they were extensively covered (or absent) in the national debate on school choice, but because they naturally surfaced in all the discussions as key to understanding why school choice is crucial to families and the future of American children.

  1. Community

Students at Archbishop Carroll High School, a private, catholic school in Washington DC, stressed over and over again that the reason why they loved their school was because of the community it enabled them to be part of, a community that they felt would give them more chances to succeed. This included more interactions with teachers who knew their students and cared for them, and students that were focused on their success, knowing what they wanted to do in the next 10-15 years.

On the other hand, there are cases when the community factor isn’t necessarily playing in favor of the kids, when, for example, parents stick with a school district that is clearly failing their children—perhaps previous generations in the family as well—hence often preventing the school district in question from any form of self-analysis and improvements.

  1. Raising the bar

The school choice movement is often portrayed as the road to privatizing the school system and our children’s education for the sake of competition and money. Leaving aside the partisan and hypocritical nature of these assertions, competing with public schools means fighting a monolithic, established mammoth that so far had all the favors government force can provide. Alternatives to public schools had to prove that they did as good a job, if not a better job, than public schools.

To the benefit of our children, they often aim at being the best option. Raising the bar is an expression that popped up in the discussions. They raise the bar not just on how the school performs but also in terms of children’s goals, and their families’ involvement in their children’s path to success. Charter and private schools are often more exigent on discipline; they encourage their kids to aim high, and make them understand results come with hard work; they involve family members; they expect their teachers to 100% part of the success of their kids.

  1. Competition

Think about the 20-mile radius around your home where you can shop for groceries. Depending on whether you are in an urban or rural area, you might have more or less options. Suppose just one supermarket was available to satisfy everyone’s grocery needs. There would be no diversity to satisfy different people with different tastes. Do you think one single option could appropriately serve every single person in a 20-mile radius? Do you think your only option would pay better attention to your needs if you couldn’t go anywhere else as an alternative? Would you consider moving as your only option to have alternatives normal?

We find it natural to have a variety of options where to shop to satisfy our vital need for food. Yet, when education is concerned, many parents and children, especially the poorest, have no choice but the traditional public school in their zip code. Isn’t education of children – and as a consequence their future – at least as important as what they eat?

Competition brings different options for different people with different needs, including in education. It also serves as a powerful safeguard against those that could care less how they perform. In fact, no competition means your only option does not have to care: you are forced to stick with this only option, as bad as it may be, so why would the option bother?

While detractors of competition point the finger at “schools for profit,” competition means that if a school fails to perform at a satisfactory level, they might lose the kids… and they might eventually have to close down. On the contrary, if parents only have one school where to send their kids, what can they do if the school fails the kids?

Not surprisingly, the best performing schools tend to welcome competition as a way for every school to strive to bring better education to children, a way for them to raise the bar.

  1. Accountability

Competition naturally leads us to what seems to be the biggest concern regarding alternatives to traditional public schools: accountability. If you are to let taxpayer money follow a kid to alternatives to public schools, you have to be sure this alternative is held accountable: is the kid learning what he needs to learn?

According to Gina Mahony, Senior Vice President, Government Relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in the past 5 years, every year, 400 to 500 schools have opened while 150 to 200 underperforming charter schools have been closed.

The DC Public Charter School Board oversees openings and closures of charters schools. In DC, by law a charter school lasts 15 years. If results aren’t satisfactory, they can be closed at any time. According to DC Public Charter School Board Deputy Director Naomie DeVeaux, the board tests schools performance on the basics: reading and writing English; math. If the school offers a special curriculum, such as bilingualism for example, they also check that the school actually does what it claims to do but results will be expected on the basics first.

  1. Personal stories

Children, and indirectly their parents, are the audience and beneficiary of early education (in market terms, there are the clients or customers). They spend most of their days, 5 days a week at school, and what they retain from these days will help them forge their future. So why aren’t we focusing on their experience? They are the best suited to tell us the difference transferring from a traditional public school to a charter or private school made in their life and education, how it helped or not, how long a commute they are willing to take to go to a particular school, and what kind of accountability they expect and receive from their options.

My next post will focus on a few alternatives to traditional public schools I had the opportunity to visit, and what students and parents had to tell about them.

Carine is a French national who immigrated to the United States to pursue her own happiness. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s degree in American Studies (specialized in corporate social responsibility) and works in public policy. She is particularly interested in issues related to economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism.

Shackled by Public Schools

by Catherine Van Arnam:

“Everybody does it” has never been much of a logical argument, but it’s one that proponents of establishment government school quite heavily rely. The ideal of a walkable neighborhood school has been cast as an idyllic vision of public education for so long, it’s hard to shake off the stupor and see the reality of our state of government education, much less envision a brighter future.

Shackled by Public SchoolsIn Texas there are almost 1,000 schools that have been deemed, by the invested state’s own measure, to be “failing.” Why not just close them? That would happen immediately if there were a free market in education. If a local restaurant fails their customers, the customers don’t come back. Ay, there’s the rub. Those customers have a choice. In much of Texas, and America, there is no alternative.

Even an excellent school may have aspects that any percentage of those mandated to attend may disagree. A highly-rated local elementary school decided to implement a values-promoting, school-wide “Leader in Me” program. Parents were not permitted to opt out. “I can’t imagine how you could,” the Principal told me. Maybe the school district couldn’t imagine why a parent would want to opt out. How could a parent’s values be different than what school administrators decided would be best for children?

Maybe the school district couldn’t imagine either why any parent would object to a neglect of history, geography, science, and instead place an emphasis on environmentalism and an untouched nature. What parent could oppose the Think Through Math program used, a thinly veiled Common Core curriculum. Often a school’s PTA will pay for field trips and plant gardens, but how many parents realize they’re also supporting a lobby group, as the PTA mobilizes every legislative session to support progressive policies, from nutrition to Common Core.

The fellow that came to inspect our home for insects looked aged beyond his years, and he shared with me how focused he has been on scraping up any money he could earn to send his child to private school. The tech in my dentist’s office lept out of his seat when I told him about a new charter school opening, immediately calculating commuting distance and despairing over low lottery odds. His family had just decided to homeschool. Another parent applied to a charter school online moments after I mentioned the alternative to her, and reported back sadly the dizzyingly high waitlist numbers for her children.

Those people are already paying for school, though. We all are! Every taxpaying individual, small and large corporation, is supporting the status quo in education. We’ve all been shepherded into complicity – supporting this educational industry that does not emphasize excellence and individual achievement, but rather expanding the number of government employees that it can sustain.

It’s wonderful for neighbors to walk their children to school together. It’s hard to imagine a slightly different system. Where like-minded neighbors come together by choice, selecting from a mix of educational options, funded by vouchers or tax-funded charters.

It’s even harder to envision the shackles of education establishment-driven taxes unclasped. A whole community freed from what is typically the biggest cause of high taxes. Charity money freed from government coffers, family profits able to go directly towards educational choices that fit that family. Most importantly, curriculum no longer set by slow-moving government bureaucrats, but instead by individuals and corporations focused on providing what each student needs. Where they fail, bad choices will cease to exist. From distance learning, classical education, religious instruction, to unschooling, an inspiring array of choice is possible, and currently so far past our grasp.

Everybody does not need to become an advocate for school choice in their family or community. Anyone who is passionate about the potential that education can unleash in young Americans, or cares how their escalating taxes are being apportioned, may want to pay attention.

There is a battle underway to smear those who want to slightly loosen the shackles of mediocre and failed government schools. It can be won simply by the slightest awareness: of the shackles.

 

Catherine Van Arnam is a dilettante who with her husband recently decided to at least raise her children right, so they moved to Texas.

Wisconsin Family Shows Power of School Choice in Local Communities

by Erik Telford:

The fight for children’s education will take place not in Washington DC, but in communities across America.

For Knya Green, a student at HOPE Christian School in Milwaukee, school is more than just a building with classrooms. Thanks to her mother’s decision to send her to a private school, Knya, now a senior, has spent the past four years getting personal attention from her teachers and thriving as a family with her classmates.

School Choice“I like that we’re like a close-knit, small school but we are excelling above the big schools in Milwaukee,” she said recently to a group of bloggers. “So that’s what I like about our school, that’s what makes us different.”

Knya’s strive to pursue higher education comes from her school instilling in its students the importance of a college education when seeking a better future. While that passion for a better future is fueled in part by Knya’s dream to be able to provide for a family of her own one day, she says that without HOPE, her college dreams would probably never be a reality. And without the school choice program that allowed Knya’s mother, and not local bureaucrats, to decide where her daughter went to school, none of these opportunities would have even been on the table.

The battle for our children’s future is far from over as long as there are laws in place blocking parents from deciding where their children will be education. And the fight for school choice primarily takes place far from Washington, D.C.; in fact, it primarily plays out in local communities across America.

If we want to reform education and empower parents, local communities need to be aware of the benefits of school choice. In many states, the decision over a child’s future is taken away from the parent and left to distracted bureaucrats and policymakers. Inefficient policies stand in the way of students trying to grow and succeed.

While government bureaucrats deem parents free to make any other choices for their children, holding the most important choice—the ability to choose the best educational options—hostage sets our communities back. One of the country’s most basic principles, that of equal opportunity, is lost when the government plays the role of parent to our children.

The issue of school choice is, at its core, a local one, as families pour tax money into their communities’ school systems. What’s important is that the money follows the child and not the other way around. Some families may choose to send their children to schools in another town. The power of choice creates imminent competition, thus improving failing school systems and learning opportunities for students across the country. Students receiving opportunity scholarships rack up a graduation rate of over 90 percent which is 35 points higher than those who don’t and are cemented in a broken school system.

Because school choice is such a local issue, it often doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. If we want to help our children and improve education, we’re going to have to make sure stories like Knya’s get told.

Erik Telford is Senior Vice President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.