Public education in Texas faces an immediate crisis.
Booming enrollment has led to increasingly overcrowded public schools. And countless students — mainly by virtue of their ZIP code alone — remain trapped in schools where their educational needs cannot be met.
That is why I testified before the Texas Senate Education Committee March 21 in support of a bill that would address both of these problems. Senate Bill 3, introduced by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would expand education choice by making all public school students eligible for an education savings account (ESA).
It deserves the support of Texas lawmakers.
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That number will rise to 9 million by 2050, of whom nearly two-thirds will be Hispanic, according to an analysis from Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas.
Texas schools are already experiencing severe overcrowding, and school districts are struggling to cope.
After years of increasing funding and soaring property taxes, the situation has scarcely improved. Meanwhile, student achievement is suffering.
Over 900,000 students attend failing schools in Texas.
Seventy percent of these students are Hispanic or African-American, and 79 percent are economically disadvantaged.
Disparities in educational achievement have persisted for decades. In the 2015 NAEP assessment for mathematics, 4th-grade Hispanic students in Texas had an average score that was 15 points lower than that of white students.
In reading, the gap widened to 25 points.
Poor and minority communities are in desperate need of greater choice in education, which would also help bring relief to overburdened public schools.
That’s where ESAs come in. In an ESA program, parents gain control of their child’s education through a savings account that is managed by the parents themselves.
The state deposits funds into a debit card that parents can use on approved educational expenses. These funds allow parents to develop a K-12 plan tailored to their own child’s needs and aspirations.
Parents could use account funds to pay for homeschooling, tuition at private schools, community college, universities or any other qualified educational expense.
Existing ESA programs have enabled parents to afford special education services, online learning courses, therapy sessions and personal tutors.
ESA programs also allow parents to save unused funds for next year’s expenses or to pay for college tuition after high school.
No other educational program matches the flexibility and broad array of options that ESAs provide parents, making them an ideal solution for parents whose children are enrolled in overcrowded schools.
The Latino community stands to be among the greatest beneficiaries of expanding school choice policies, so it is no surprise they are strongly in support.
It makes sense for Texas policymakers to expand educational opportunity by enacting reforms that parents and families will welcome.
Four states — Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee — have already established ESA programs, and families are happy with the results.
A survey of parents using an ESA in Arizona found that 71 percent were “very satisfied” with the program, and no parent reported any dissatisfaction.
Parents know their children best and should be able to provide them the education that best serves their unique needs.
Unsurprisingly, studies have found that choice-based programs like ESAs greatly improve the quality of education children receive.
Last year, researchers at the University of Arkansas reviewed 19 studies on school choice programs around the world and found that participation in such programs led to “educationally meaningful achievement gains of several months of additional learning.”
Expanding the range of educational opportunities open to our students will benefit families and public schools alike.
I encourage our elected officials to support ESA programs and bring education choice to Texas.
Jorge A. Lima is the executive director of The LIBRE Initiative.