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Dallas Jewish Week

School vouchers in Texas?

by Tamara Stokes

Special to DJW

Dallas' growing Jewish population has access to more private Jewish schools than ever before as more religious schools are founded in the north Texas area. With Bush's faith-based initiative programs and buzz words such as "charitable choice funding" for aid agencies, vouchers are being touted as the latest cure-all for education needs for the entire state.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision ruled that a voucher system in Cleveland is constitutionally acceptable. Ohio state taxes are used to fund this voucher program that offsets part of the cost of an alternative education program for low-income students living in low-performing school districts.

The ruling is a surprise because in December 2000 a federal appeals court ruled the Cleveland voucher program was unconstitutional. Ninety-six percent of the program participants used taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend religious schools.

DFW area school districts such as Allen, Carrollton, Garland, Highland Park, Lewisville, McKinney, Plano, Richardson, Rowlett, Sachse or Wylie are not considered substandard or low-performing school districts. Many rural communities don't have the private-school choices available. So how would wide-ranging favor for a voucher program fly with north Texas constituents?

DFW area school districts such as Allen, Carrollton, Garland, Highland Park, Lewisville, McKinney, Plano, Richardson, Rowlett, Sachse or Wylie are not considered substandard or low-performing school districts. Many rural communities don't have the private-school choices available. So how would wide-ranging favor for a voucher program fly with north Texas constituents?

Chief Justice William Rehnquist says the voucher choice allowed in Cleveland is "entirely neutral with respect to religion," according to a June 28 Dallas Morning News article. The majority of private schools accepting vouchers were parochial.

Gov. Rick Perry says that, ultimately, their children's education is a parent's choice and he views a limited pilot program as a way to foster choice and participation in children's education.

Dallas Sen. Royce West, an opponent of vouchers, claims the Texas Constitution prohibits any state tax. The Texas Constitution is first line of defense against a voucher system. Opponents in Florida, one of three states with voucher programs, are using the Florida Constitution's language in efforts to repeal it.

The recent Supreme Court ruling says the United States Constitution allows individual state legislatures to pass laws similar to Ohio's voucher laws. The debate will carry over to the local legislatures and fall squarely on the shoulders of Texas representatives in Austin's House and Senate.

Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum of Congregation Ohr HaTorah says, "For many families, it is costly to send their children to a religious school." He believes a voucher program may put the religious education within financial reach for qualifying families. Feigenbaum agrees that a voucher program is valuable only if there is a distinct separation of church and state.

Lobbyists for corporate franchise tax credit programs promote this tax as a way to fund voucher programs. Seven private organizations in Texas provide vouchers to private religious schools. CEO Horizon Program in San Antonio funds vouchers for Edgewood ISD. In Dallas, The Children's Education Fund, part of The Today Foundation, supports voucher programs.

Texas has one of the largest charter school systems in the nation, created in 1995. Publicly funded but privately run campuses are free of many regulations that affect public schools. Charter schools spend between $5,000 and $6,000 per student annually, compared to $5,600 the Dallas Independent School District spends per student.

With 50 charter schools in the Dallas area and administrative salaries more than doubling those of public sector counterparts, the spending practices and effectiveness of charter schools are under scrutiny. Although a cap was placed on the number of charter schools when the schools were first created, new schools continue to be created. Nearly half the schools received low performance ratings from the state, based on test scores and dropout figures.

Private donations have been used to fund tuition vouchers in the past but, under a proposed Texas House Bill 2489 introduced in April 2001, public funds through tax credits could fund vouchers for private schools. The bill did not require accountability for tuition vouchers received with tax credits rather than from direct tax funds. There were no low-income requirements for students who failed to pass standardized tests, although the code defined an at-risk student as any child who fails any section of the TAAS test or end-of-course subjects such as Algebra I or Biology I.

The Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a watchdog agency based in Austin, is keeping tabs on legislation being introduced with regard to voucher programs in Texas. TFN has extensive research on the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher programs: see it at .

Since 1995, Legal Director for the American Jewish Congress (AJC), Marc Stern, has fought against vouchers. The AJC released a statement regarding the ruling as "an unconstitutional counter-revolution, reversing the religious freedoms put into place by our nation's founders." Taxation with respect to a voucher system means public taxes are pooled and may support faiths other than the taxpayer's.

The very nature of private school is a personal choice. Whether the school is religious or not, private schools are free from state-imposed regulations. Private schools are allowed to give preference to students who belong to their particular religious faith or who perform at certain academic standards.

With Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Florence Shapiro favors limited pilot voucher programs in Texas. Shapiro, a Republican from Plano, says, "I believe children in low-performing schools who have not had an opportunity to leave (the school) are trapped - they can't afford to go to a different school and it limits their ability to thrive."

Perry says, in the June 28 Dallas Morning News article, that "parents have a place and role in the decision-making process about where their children go to school. It's about parental choice."

Under proposed pilots, a student must meet low-income requirements, must attend a low-performing public school and either the public or private entity where the student is seeking admission must accept the voucher to offset tuition costs. A program with these parameters does not point to relief for many middle-class families who also seek alternatives to public education but do not qualify as "low income."

According to Shapiro and the precedent set by Justice Rehnquist, voucher funding in this way is not government sponsorship of religion as long as it is provided on an equal basis to religious and nonreligious institutions and the people who opt for the voucher program do so under their own free will.

Shapiro's career history as a children's advocate was underscored with the passage of Ashley's Laws in 1995 and 1997, which improves the way the state adjudicates, punishes and tracks criminals who perpetrate crimes against children. She served on the Senate Committee of Education, which was charged with studying accountability and finance in public schools, charter schools and alternative education programs.

Shapiro says the voucher issue was not part of a study under the Education Committee, and that says no decision regarding voucher programs will be made before the next Texas legislative session. Even if voucher bills are introduced and approved, implementation will be as far off as September 2003 or even January 2004.

West says that funding private school tuitions through vouchers is "the last thing in the world we need to do." He says a voucher system will "siphon off funds" from the public education system, which already falls short of funding in many districts.

Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas says, "I've long been opposed to voucher programs because any plan would drain needed resources from public schools, which serve all children. About nine out of every 10 children attend public schools and public funding should go into strengthening those schools." Frost also has a background of advocacy for children and was a member of a select committee that studied school violence.

The key to the success of any education program is the quality of individual student education. San Antonio Edgewood ISD lost approximately $3 million when a voucher program was offered to the entire district. Only 726 out of 14,000 students used the vouchers.

Frost says, "I was disappointed by the court's decision on vouchers and I believe it would be a mistake to implement any form of private school voucher schemes in Texas. We need to focus our limited resources where it will help by far the most students - in Texas' public schools."

This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Friday, July 19, 2002








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