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Texas Catholic bishops back school choice bill amid public funding debate

The Texas State Capitol building is pictured in Austin Sept. 3, 2021. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is backing a school choice legislation in the state. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

(OSV News) — The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops has backed a set of bills in the state’s Legislature that supporters maintain would give parents more say in their child’s education, but critics argue would strip crucial funds from public schools.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has identified school choice as one of his top priorities for the state’s current legislative session.

“Everything’s bigger in Texas, including school choice,” Abbott wrote in a March 27 tweet. “We believe in empowering Parents. Parents know what is best for their child.”

In March testimony before state lawmakers, Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth backed the measure, saying the effort meets the criteria the state’s Catholic bishops use to vet education legislation for their support, including ensuring the bills have a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, as well as protections for the privacy, autonomy and religious freedom of participating schools.

“While there are legitimate state interests involved with the education of children, these interests are always subordinate to the natural right of fathers and mothers to be the primary educators of their children,” Bishop Olson said. “Fathers and mothers are the primary educators of their children, not the state.”

The legislation under consideration, SB 2354/HB 4339, would grant some parents the ability to apply for an Education Savings Account that would provide approximately $8,000-$10,000 per year per student. Eligibility is limited by a household income level that is double the rate of free or reduced school lunch eligibility. Those funds would then cover homeschooling expenses, private school tuition or go towards college savings accounts.

“Parents would be able to apply these funds toward the specific educational needs of their children, including core instruction, instructional supplies, assessment, supplemental supports such as tutoring or therapy, co-curricular enrichment or transportation,” Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the TCCB, said in a statement. “This means parents are able to decide what is needed to help their child flourish and succeed.”

While supporters of school choice argue it empowers parents by giving more educational options, opponents, including Democrats and rural Republicans, say the funds could damage already tight public school budgets in disadvantaged parts of the state. The Texas Association of Rural Schools has worked against the measure, according to NBC News. Texas schools are funded by a combination of state and local tax dollars, so stripping state funds could harm rural communities with fewer of their own funds, critics say. Some even expressed concern the loss of funds could damage high school football.

In a statement at the onset of the legislative session, Bob Popinski, senior director of policy at Raise Your Hand Texas, an educational advocacy group that opposes such vouchers, said, “Time and again, Texas lawmakers have roundly rejected voucher schemes and privatization of education, recognizing the threat to local, community schools and the students they serve.”

“Texas public schools already deliver robust and innovative school choice options for their students. State leaders must reject any effort to siphon money from public schools for unaccountable private schools or homeschools,” Popinski said.

But supporters say a tiny fraction of total enrollment in public schools in Texas would be impacted.

“Most students will continue to benefit from a public-school education, because the many advantages offered by public schools, such as sports and other extracurricular activities, are attractive to families,” Allmon said. “At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect every public school to be everything to every child.”

Allmon added, “This is not a zero-sum game where private schools win, and public schools lose. It is a win-win for communities when all children can flourish in the educational setting best suited for them.”

The legislation has advanced out of the education committee in the state’s Senate, but it faces steeper odds in the state’s House where rural Republican lawmakers have previously rejected school choice proposals.

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.

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