When Betsy DeVos was confirmed at the new secretary of education, she brought with her an alternative position on public education, advocating more school choice for parents across the country.
Through her proposed voucher system, federal funding would be redirected and used to fund student attendance at private schools rather than public schools.
Vouchers will continue to be discussed in the 85th State Legislative session, said Plano ISD school board president Missy Bender, and this topic has been a “consistent priority for as long as I’ve been on the board.”
Plano ISD’s official position opposes the use of public funds for voucher, tax credits, education savings grants, portability measures or any other mechanisms to privatize public education.
To understand the district’s position on vouchers is to understand what it costs to educate a child, Bender said. Yes, residents pay property taxes, but it takes much more than local funding to fund public education.
Several voucher supporters may say, “I pay taxes. I should have a right to decide how those monies are used for my child,” Bender said. However, “the amount of taxes one pays has zero relationship with how much it actually cost to educate a child.”
Bender explained education is funded by a combination of local, state and federal funds. Local funds, of course, come from property tax, commercial tax and all residents – whether they have children or not.
State funding comes from sales tax and other tax revenue, and federal aid accounts for about 8 or 9 percent of the total PISD budget. These funds are mainly used to fund special education and federal free lunch programs, which provides poverty-level students with breakfast and lunch during the school day.
On a national level President Donald Trump’s 'New School Choice' plan would redirect that 8 to 9 percent funding into a $20 billion block grant for states to distribute possibly for vouchers, Bender said.
Since that federal money directly funds special education and meal plans, schools must ask the question: What will happen to those programs?
“They’re talking about taking that money away from the whole picture and giving it to private entities. Where is the special ed funding going to come from?” she said. “Where is the federal meal plan money going to come from? They’re just going to take it away? So, what are the implications? The impact to these children in need: the hungry ones and the ones who need special education services.”
It costs about $7,500 every time PISD loses an enrollment. So, if 10 students leave for a voucher system, the district would lose $75,000 in funding. However, the district can’t reduce its costs by $75,000 to adjust with enrollment.
“Even though the revenue might be variable, the cost is fixed,” she said. And PISD costs include teacher salaries, updates to technology, new school programs, etc. Students’ needs and expenses don’t change just because the student population does. And even though students will be using public funds for these vouchers, there is “no academic nor financial accountability, “Bender said.
The president’s current plan charges each state to “develop its own formula,” with which to dispense fund, “but the dollars should follow the student.”
As it stands, the plan gives residents a 100,000-foot view. There are no other details regarding implementation. However, for Bender, the proposed impact could be very real.
Overall, this shift could mean a reduction in federal funding to public schools, less state funding, and even less accountability for all that money, Bender said.
With an emphasis on private schooling, public funds will be filtered into private institutions with little to no accountability on how the money’s used, she said.
PISD has a longstanding disdain for recapture, and the lack of transparency regarding how that money is spent, so the added voucher system could make it more difficult for taxpayers to know where their money goes each school year. To combat this, the board has joined Richardson ISD and Spring Branch ISD to call for more accountability on the state level.
The board is constantly working, Bender said, to offer choices for parents within the public system. There are three academies in PISD – Plano ISD Health Sciences Academy, IB World School at Plano East Senior High School and Plano ISD Academy High School. At last Tuesday’s school board meeting, they approved a new choice program at Huffman Elementary, and at the next school board meeting, they’ll introduce another choice program for high schools.
“We do our best to provide great choices,” she said. “And I feel like our community at large is pretty happy with that.”
The board is still trying to make their position know to local representatives and policy makers, but two local representatives appear to have a difference in opinion.
State Representatives Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) and Jeff Leach (R-Plano) are members of the Texas Freedom Caucus, whose platform regarding school choice states:
“We support the right to choose public, private, charter or home education. We support the distribution of educational funds in a manner that they follow the student to any school, whether public, private, charter, or home school through means of tax exemptions and/or credits.”
The direction of public education will be a close conversation to watch. Secretary DeVos said she admires a privatized education with more religious freedom. She highly values charter schools, which combine private education and accountability. And for several residents, this shift in education is long overdue.
From PISD’s standpoint, a voucher program opens the door for even less transparency and accountability with public tax dollars.
“This whole voucher conversation is ideological. And it’s very hard to fight an ideological battle because people are entrenched in their positions. So we’re approaching it from a transparency point of view,” she said.
But there is some good news. Plano ISD has a bill in the House and the Senate addressing the transparency of tax dollars and public funds, “so you’re going to see us talk more about this, locally.”