The strategy for passing school choice in Texas for the last 15 years has been the pilot voucher bill, which gives vouchers exclusively to students in failing inner-city school districts. Clearly, these are the students (or dropouts) who would be helped the most by a school choice program. More recently, a second pilot approach has been to award vouchers exclusively for autistic students.
The logic of the pilot approach is one of sympathy. It says, “Since these kids are suffering so severely and no strategies within the public school system have yet to work that we should at least try vouchers with these kids. It couldn’t hurt them, and perhaps it could benefit them. Also, since the vouchers are just for a small percentage of public school students, they cannot hurt the overall public school system.” Motivated by lobbyists, the sympathy approach waters down the impact of the bill in order to make it more difficult for a legislator to morally or philosophically oppose the bill.
A pilot voucher bill was debated on the floor of the House during the 2005 regular session. The supporters of the bill used the “sympathy approach”, but the opponents’ crafty strategists turned the moral high ground on its head. They complained, “You want to ‘impose’ school choice on my inner-city district, but not impose it on your own district.” When the supporters didn’t call the opponent’s bluff and agree to include their districts, they were seen as the hypocrites. This was the beginning of the end for the bill. The supporters were too polite to confront the opponents about the real, blatant hypocrisy of the representatives who chose private schools for their own children, but refused to give the same choice to their constituents’ children.
Whatever effectiveness the “sympathy approach” may have, it is no match for the grassroots power of the public school system. The opponents to school choice have a built-in, highly organized, grassroots system in the employees of the public school system. They can get out the vote in massive numbers.
In the end, the only power that will pass school choice and defend it from counter-attack is the fundamental power of politics. That is votes. The grassroots power of the public school system has to be met with grassroots power in favor of school choice.
In contrast to the sympathy approach is the “grassroots approach”. This “grassroots approach” does not depend on sympathy or persuasion in Austin. It relies on persuasion of constituents in the districts of the legislators. Organizing parents to vote and communicate with their legislators in unity is the only way to match the power of the public school system.
But a pilot bill is the wrong bill for a grassroots approach. If you are attempting to persuade constituents, you have to be able to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” You must have a better answer than, “Nothing. It won’t hurt you or help you.”
The right bill for the grassroots approach is a universal bill that has something for every citizen in the state. It should benefit inner-city parents, suburban parents, and rural parents; private school parents, public school parents, and homeschooling parents; and finally individuals and business entities without children.
Inner-city parents would like a voucher or scholarship to open the door to a private school. The suburban parent would like to be able to take an ISD tax credit for their private school or homeschooling expenses. Many parents would like a “mini-voucher” or tax credit to pay for tutoring or educational enrichment for their child attending public school. Individuals and business entities without children would like an ISD tax credit and franchise tax credit for a donation to a scholarship organization, similar to the CEO Foundations in Austin and San Antonio or the Children’s Education Fund in Dallas.
In summary, pilot vouchers won’t fly because the sympathy approach cannot compete with the grassroots approach. The grassroots approach should have something for all constituents in a universal comprehensive bill. With everyone involved we might be able to get the plane off the ground.
Lone Star Report
Op Ed by Bob Schoolfield, President
Let’s Choose Schools in Texas