Cabrera: School choice without vouchers

March 11, 2017
El Paso Times

Juan Cabrera, guest columnist

The days in which children were assigned a school and school district based solely on their home address and ZIP code are long gone. Families now have a choice and that has created high expectations in the quality of education their children are being offered.

In the midst of the choice discussion, many states have introduced vouchers — a mechanism that further complicates the already-difficult school funding conversation states like Texas are having. It is important for the general public, but more specifically parents, to understand that vouchers are not synonymous with choice; and that we do not need vouchers to create choice in Texas public schools.

Choice is and has been available in our public schools for many years. Nonetheless, Texas, along with many other states, has proposed vouchers in various forms.

In an attempt to move them through the Texas Legislature, vouchers have also been called “taxpayer savings grants” and “tax credits.” Under either name, they are still an attempt to defund Texas public schools.

The discussion of vouchers surfaced in Texas in 1995, and they were presented as “tax credits” in the 2011-2015 legislative sessions. They’ve been a major focus of the 2017 session.

Today, without vouchers, parents can choose innovative public schools such as El Paso Independent School District’s Mesita Elementary School’s Connecting Languages program, which continues on to Wiggs Middle and El Paso High. This program is in addition to the dual-language options offered at every EPISD elementary school.

Other choices in EPISD include Silva Health Magnet, early college high schools at Transmountain and Burges, Chapin’s Engineering Magnet, Bowie’s International Business Magnet, International Baccalaureate at Coronado High (with new IB programs soon to open at Andress High and Morehead, Lincoln and Richardson middle schools).

EPISD is creating new choices, too.

The district has one of the largest New Tech Network systems, with six schools offering this hands-on, project-based learning program: Irvin, Franklin, Bowie and Austin high schools, as well as Brown and Canyon Hill middle schools.

Two New Tech programs will open next school year, one at Guillen Middle and one at another innovative choice school: the soon-to-be-named young women’s academy.

EPISD is not alone in offering choice. Our sister school districts have their own suite of innovative programs that give parents and students options in the way they receive their education.

But these options require funding. If vouchers become law in Texas, school districts will have fewer dollars to continue and further expand choice at Texas public schools.

Legislators need to improve school funding and focus on streamlining the rigorous and often complicated accountability system, instead of spending valuable time and resources discussing vouchers and other vehicles to remove dollars from public schools.

Proponents argue vouchers offer children living in low-income neighborhoods the opportunity to attend private schools. The reality, though, is that these schools are not available for most low-income students even with vouchers. These high-cost private schools are too far away from our poor neighborhoods, and tuition is too high for our parents to pay the difference even after vouchers are used.

Parents and taxpayers should ask voucher proponents if these efforts are truly meant to help kids of poverty, or are they instead a mechanism to defund our critical public schools.

I understand that private and/or charter schools may be the answer for some families and I support anyone that works with children.

The majority of students currently do and will continue to attend our public schools. Any attempt to defund or divert funds from these efforts will be a severe blow to the important work of educating our public school children.

Juan Cabrera is superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District.

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