As the debate over school choice heats up in the Texas Legislature, public school leaders and advocates across El Paso are taking a hard stance against proposed legislation that would allow private schools to receive state funds through voucher-like programs.  

Many expressed concern that the efforts would siphon funds from already struggling school districts and are worried that those in low-income and rural areas would be hit the hardest.

“My first thought is before they send public funds to a private institution, the state should be able to fund the current public school system appropriately, which it’s not,” Clint Independent School District Superintendent Juan Martinez told El Paso Matters in a recent interview.

School vouchers have long been a hot topic for Texas lawmakers, but the initiative gained momentum this year as Gov. Greg Abbott has taken on a statewide tour promoting the plan at private and rural schools throughout the state.

Senate Bill 8 — dubbed the Texas Parental Bill of Rights by its GOP authors — would give families looking to take their children out of public school and send them to private schools $8,000 a year through an education savings account to spend on tuition, books and other expenses. The bill, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and is expected to come with a  $1.1 billion price tag. 

Texas Senate Bill 8 which is being debated in the Texas Legislature would help parents pay for enrolling their child in private school. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Senate passed the bill on April 6, just hours after the House voted to put a ban on any type of school voucher program. Still, SB 8 will be headed to the House. 

Meanwhile, the House debated its own school choice proposal, HB 4340, during a House Public Education Committee meeting on Tuesday. The bill, filed by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, would give qualifying students up to $10,300 a year, depending on their income, and is estimated to cost more than $1.2 billion.

Clint ISD serves more than 10,000 students, 86% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged and are eligible for free or reduced lunch or other public assistance. Martinez said that the district has struggled to stay properly funded and is only staying afloat thanks to COVID-19 relief funds, which are set to expire in September 2024.

Now, Martinez said he worries that this initiative could encourage families to leave the shrinking district, causing it to lose out on state Foundation School Program funds, which are based on student attendance and enrollment. He noted that this is something his school district has already experienced as charter schools popped up across the county and enrollment numbers declined.

“We already see the impact of school choice,” Martinez said. “The fewer students we have, the less money we receive from the state.”

Some El Paso area school boards, including the El Paso and the Socorro independent school district boards, passed resolutions this spring calling on the Legislature to prevent any transfer of public funds using vouchers or education savings accounts to private schools.

“This is going to be another avenue where you’re gonna have vouchers take kids away from the public school system, and I think we just need to be investing more in the public school system rather than taking from it,” said EPISD District 3 trustee Joshua Acevedo. 

A school choice bill being debated at the Texas Legislature, if approved, might hurt public school districts by taking state funding to pay for private schools. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Though Acevedo noted that he thinks these school choice initiatives may be dead in the water thanks to the House vote to ban vouchers, he said it is still something to look out for as Abbott and GOP lawmakers try to push the state further to the right.

“I think when we look at it on the national stage, it’s really [Gov. Ron] DeSantis versus Abbott,” Acevedo said. “Whatever DeSantis does Abbott copies and it’s trickling down to other states. And, I think the people that are gonna really see the effects of that are our students or our families.”

Others, like EPISD American Federation of Teachers President Ross Moore, felt that the fight may not be over.

“I think our delegation here in El Paso and the delegations where rural communities will be hurt badly by vouchers will be able to resist (passing the bill) in the House,” Moore said. “My expectation though is because Gov. Abbott put such a public face as this is one of his main goals. He will just keep holding special sessions until they give in.”

Private schools open to taking public funds

On the other end of the spectrum, one private school leader El Paso Matters spoke to – Radford School Executive Director Robert Marsh – said he is open to the idea of taking public funds through voucher programs. But he worries they may be tied to additional regulations.

“As a private school, we run solely on our tuition, so obviously having a larger pool of parents to choose from is a positive. But we don’t do the state testing (and) we don’t do a lot of the things that the public schools would do. So first of all, I would like to see what strings are attached to that money,” Marsh told El Paso Matters in an interview prior to the Senate’s vote on SB 8.

During the Senate’s debate, some Democrat lawmakers attempted to pass amendments that would require private schools to follow certain regulations like requiring an A through F performance rating and reporting enrollment data. The actions failed mostly along party lines.

Don’t say ‘gay’ in Texas schools

The makeup of SB 8 includes what Abbott called “anti-woke” policies that are even more stringent than Florida’s infamous “don’t say gay” legislation. Besides creating a voucher system, the bill also bans instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity at all grade levels. 

Moore said that most educators he has heard from oppose regulations that limit what they can talk about and feel lawmakers should trust teachers to be able to have age-appropriate discussions with their students.

“What I picked up from the members is they support this simple slogan, education, not ideology. In other words, this legislature needs to be focused on education, not somebody’s ideology,” Moore said. “There’s no place for either class or cultural warfare in education, it needs to be focused on the kids.”

Martinez and Moore also noted that the move is unnecessary under Texas’ curriculum, which already limits those discussions.

“This idea that the schools independently are teaching this stuff is not the case,” Martinez said. “That is a political statement rather than the reality in which we live in.”

The bill would also prohibit “schools from withholding information from children’s parents, and are required to receive parental consent for the administration of any medical, psychiatric and psychological treatments or tests.”

It also allows parents to review instructional material to verify it is age-appropriate and on grade level and gives parents avenues to file grievances.

The haves and have nots

Though education savings accounts and voucher programs are meant to make it easier for families to pay for private schools by using taxpayer money, opponents of SB 8 argued that the plan is unrealistic, especially for low-income and disabled students.

Texas Senate Bill 8, if approved, would help parents pay for enrolling their child in private school. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“When you look at what you get there’s an equity issue as well, they’re looking at giving $8,000, and with the current annual payment for a student, that doesn’t buy you anywhere near a quality education,” Moore said. “So if lower-income families take the voucher, their kids are going to get a lower-quality education … and that kind of segregates education, you’re going to have the haves and the have-nots.

“What it does do, is it subsidizes those who can already afford to send their kids to a private school.”

On average, the state pays school districts about $12,000 a year for every student in public school, which is about $3,000 less than the national average, according to a 2021 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In many cases, the $8,000-a-year voucher won’t actually be enough to cover the costs of attending most private schools in El Paso. Tuition at Radford School ranges from $7,250 to $9,525 a year and requires a $750 registration fee. Tuition at St. Clement’s Parish School ranges from $7,405 to nearly $13,000 a year. Loretto Academy’s tuition ranges from $7,550 to $7,900 a year and tuition at Cathedral High School runs at $8,700 a year. None of these sums include the cost of books, transportation and extracurricular activities, which often come with an additional charge.

Even in situations where the vouchers can cover the full cost of private school tuition, some students may not be able to enroll in the school of their choice depending on its admission process.

“It’s not guaranteed that students – just because they have the voucher – that they’re going to be able to attend here. They still have to qualify,” Marsh said about Radford School.

To attend Radford, students above second grade are required to take entrance tests, get a recommendation from a teacher, and complete a student project that asks the students to write about themselves and their beliefs, according to the school’s website. Marsh noted that Radford is a nondenominational school and bases its admittance requirements on academic achievement.

Some local school leaders worry these types of admissions processes can allow private schools to be selective of who they let in – discriminating against certain students.

“A religious school can discriminate against any child who they don’t want. They can basically say, ‘Well, you are not welcome here for whatever reason,’” Martinez said. “They can withdraw children at will. That happens with the charter schools right now. They pre-select who they want. 

“So why is it that those schools are allowed to discriminate against children left and right, and get state funds?” he added. “We will never do that because that’s not it’s not in our DNA. We are here to serve children, regardless of behaviors regardless of what they identify as. We are here to take every child and educate them.”

Claudia Silva was born and raised in El Paso and studied journalism at New Mexico State University. She's covered a number of topics, from education to arts and culture, in both Texas and New Mexico.