Is Texas About to Change How Parents Choose Their Children's School?

The "Family Educational Relief Program" would helps Low-Income Families solve their Education Roadblocks

By Linda Nuttall

AUSTIN, Texas (Texas Insider Report) — If you parented a child through this past lockdown year, you might now be aware of the limitations of our public schools. Your tax money went to the schools – while you were the unpaid adult in the room seeing to their education.

Many families continue to face chronic failure, far beyond a pandemic response – 100s of 1,000s of children in Texas are not being adequately served by public schools.

If you have the resources, you can find a solution.
 
But failing schools harm low-income families’ children the most – most Texans will be surprised to learn that translates to 60.2% of public school students in Texas.

There are around 900,000 Texas students – almost 1 in  5 – attending nearly 1,000 failing Texas schools, meaning the school didn’t meet the Minimal Yearly Progress (a pretty low bar) for three years in a row.

Of the 8,838 K-12 campuses in Texas, 947 don’t earn a D Rating or above. Only 5,019 campuses earn an A or B rating.

And even a highly rated school can fail to provide for the needs of a particular student, who may need special accommodations for learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or even giftedness.
 
One approach to a solution has been the state's rapidly growing number of Charter Schools – but some 130,000 students currently sit on waiting lists for openings to attend.

Meanwhile, there are 100,000 empty seats in private schools. There’s a demand and a supply, but they aren’t getting together.

The Family Educational Relief Program is designed to bridge this gap. SB 1968 by State Senator Paul Bettencourt, and its companion HB 4537 by State Rep. Mayes Middleton, is a bi-partisan bill to help low-income families solve their educational roadblocks.

Where does the funding for the program come from? From grants, gifts, and donations. For the state, funding is considered neutral. Because of the way the program is structured, public schools get a literal per-student increase for every student that participates.

The way it works is, the Texas State Comptroller places a certain amount in the Family Educational Relief Program fund, which is distributed to parents who volunteer to act as trustees of their child’s fund for use in private school tuition, online programs, curriculum, or other qualifying educational purposes. Funds are distributed to partents by a scholarship granting organization created for this purpose.

The program fund allots 90% of the typical ISD's Maintenance & Operation Funding (M&O) for that child – leaving the remaining 10% to the school district to use for maintenance and loan interest.

Let’s do the math.
 
Say the per student state funding is $9,600 per school year. The school district with a student participating will keep 10%, or $960 – plus whatever funding the schools get from the permanent school fund or federal sources, because this bill doesn’t touch those.
 
The student’s parents would get $8,640. If they don’t use it all in one school year, the remainder rolls over to the following year as long as the child remains eligible.

That’s an incentive for the parents to use the funds wisely.

But if the fund doesn’t completely cover expenses (tuition for a particular school, for example), then the parents are free to pay any difference. Maybe a family couldn’t afford to pay a $9,000 private school tuition, but they could manage to scrape together $360 – the difference between their allotment and the tuition.

It would be their choice, rather than a limitation placed on them by the state.

What about accountability?

Similar to a health savings account, the money can only be used for preapproved purposes. Private schools must be accredited. Vendors of other products and services will have to show their qualifications to the state. The state will be providing a list of qualifying private schools and other vendors. The parents just go to the list – they don’t have to get the state to qualify their choices or worry whether they’re using the funds appropriately.
 
The schools and vendors will be competing for those family-controlled dollars. That means they’re likely to offer a better quality education at lower, more efficient prices.

The larger the program grows, the more true that will be.

The comptroller’s office handles funding only, not decisions about curriculum. Beyond requiring schools and vendors to provide credentials, the state does not do any regulating. The parents are now the trustees – in place of the ISD Board of Trustees –  and it is up to them to choose the best options for their particular child.

Similar programs are underway in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Montana, and other states. We’ve learned from their successes and refined details to best fit Texas.

Texas could meet its obligation to students whose parents don’t have the resources to pay for alternatives. We can give parents a choice in how and where to educate their child – and we can do it without any additional cost to the state.

Linda Nuttall is a writer, editor, and former curriculum writer living in northwest Houston. She writes the Spherical Model Blog on the interrelationships of the political, economic, and social spheres.
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