By Russell Withers, January 24, 2024
The dust having settled on House Bill 1 (88S4) and the House’s first earnest debate over school choice in nearly two decades, I’ve had some time to reflect on the proceedings. In more than ten years of advocating for school choice at TCCRI, I have come to believe that the opposition in the House in its current makeup is simply far too strong for a meaningful choice bill to pass. TCCRI has been successful in advocating for smaller choice reforms that will have a positive impact on targeted student populations (e.g. public school choice for children of police officers and military servicemembers), but true school choice with private options has been elusive. During those years, there was always a source of optimism remaining in the fact that a choice bill had not been presented to the full House body. It was easy to dismiss budget amendment votes against funding choice programs as a fake proxy for a true school choice bill vote. If a bill made it to the House floor, and if the Governor strongly supported it, a vote might differ considerably from those budget votes.
November 17 made clear that this Texas House of Representatives is not going to pass a meaningful school choice bill, having voted 84 to 63 to strip a $500 million Education Savings Account (ESA) program out of the larger $7.5 billion education omnibus bill. In other words, the opposition to ESAs was so strong that the House rejected $7 billion in public school funding increases, which were set to increase the basic allotment, increase formula funding for small and mid-sized districts, increase funding for students with dyslexia and related disorders, provide facilities funding for charter schools, and give teachers and school staff considerable pay raises. The bill even contained provisions protecting public school funding for districts with declining enrollment. Yes, more money to educate fewer students.
Much could be said about the floor debate on ESAs in HB 1. Indeed, it is frustrating to hear members of the Texas Legislature argue that a bill prioritizing poor kids will only benefit wealthy families, or to hear a member defend the objectively poor performance of schools in his or her district (throw a dart at a Texas map and you’re more likely than not to hit a district in which fewer than half of the students are meeting grade level standards in any subject), or to assert that school choice won’t benefit his or her district based on nothing but a belief, or to argue that the program will take money from public schools when the program is limited, funded separately, and tied to a public education funding increase 14x the amount of the ESA program. It was all of the same arguments that TCCRI has repeatedly and thoroughly debunked.
Despite the frustrating arguments and embellished rhetoric, the one exchange that really stuck with me over the last two months was this back and forth between Chairman Harold Dutton and Chairman Briscoe Cain:
Chairman Cain does an excellent job making the case for school choice, pointing out that parents empowered with choices become more involved, and making the rhetorical point that more public school funding should not be expected to achieve that same outcome. Chairman Dutton responds with an anecdote about not being able to pass a bill through the legislature to give parents one hour a year away from their jobs in order to engage in their child’s education.
The exchange speaks to a fundamental difference in what Chairman Cain and Chairman Dutton believe in terms of the government’s ability to solve problems. It immediately reminded me of Thomas Sowell’s great work, A Conflict of Visions, in which Sowell lays out two competing worldviews—"visions”—and why they so often lead to opposing approaches to the same problem.
Sowell describes two visions: The “unconstrained” and the “constrained.”
The “unconstrained” vision sees human nature as fundamentally good and perfectible. As such, human capacity to solve problems is unlimited. Men and women who set aside their own self-interest should be given influence and power to solve society’s ills. Compromise should be rejected in that pursuit, while collateral damage accepted. In this case, the pursuit of perfecting a fundamentally broken public education system is worth the collateral damage of a generation of poorly educated Texans and all of the opportunities lost to those students.
The “constrained” vision sees human nature as static. Humans are inherently self-interested and incapable of setting that self-interest aside, despite the capacity for empathy and altruism. The constrained vision sees forces that retard human-kind’s inherent self-interest as forcing trade-offs that produce desirable social benefits indirectly. Rather than seeking an unattainable solution, the constrained vision seeks structures and incentives that move society closer to the desired outcome. In this case, adding options to the education portfolio is one of those trade-offs, and the competition from those additional options will make Texas better off as it has done repeatedly in other states.
I hold Chairman Dutton in high regard and have a deep level of respect for him. We align on a not insignificant number of policy questions, but his remarks in on the floor during the debate over ESAs make clear that his vision differs from that of mine and Chairman Cain’s considerably. To state that “We are smart enough to fix the ills of public education,” is classic unconstrained vision. Central planning writ large. As Sowell explains: “In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment.”
Chairman Dutton elaborates: “If I thought we couldn’t do it . . . I would suggest in a heartbeat that what we ought to do is . . . give all of our kids the option to go to private school because we can’t do it, but I don’t believe that. I believe that this body is smart enough and has the willpower ensure that every child who shows up at the front door of a school, we get to unlock the genius in that child. And I believe we can do that.” He concludes by asserting to his legislative colleagues that school choice proponents “don’t think that you all are smart enough to fix public education, and I disagree with that.”
A constrained vision could not disagree more. Texas should do everything it can to improve its public school system, but a constrained vision looks at the larger goal—educating Texas children—and asks “what systems and trade-offs could we put in place that would help move us towards that goal?” Chairman Cain nails it when he talks about empowering parents through competition and providing options. School choice programs have a decades-long track record of improving educational outcomes and providing a broad array of benefits, which is why we seek to enact it in Texas.
I will concede that Chairman Dutton is correct when he asserts that people like me don’t think the legislature can “fix public education,” though I would not frame it in terms of smarts, but rather as an unachievable and undefinable task in the first place. Sowell’s constrained vision would see no way of perfecting the public school system. Opponents like to point out the private interests that would benefit from such programs, but often fail to recognize the powerful self-interested public education interests that place themselves above the interests of students and parents. Worse yet, opponents often act to protect those interests. A teacher union or an association of school administrators exists to protect its own interests, just as a private school or a parent does the same. The constrained vision recognizes all of this self-interest and seeks trade-offs that help move towards a desirable outcome.
There is no “fix” to public education because there is broad disagreement over what a one-size-fits-all system for more than 5 million kids even looks like. From curriculum to social issues, testing and accountability, school safety and security, teacher qualifications and classroom size, and all the way down to what is served in cafeterias and what can be hung on the wall in classrooms, there is so much disagreement over the smallest questions in public education that the idea of a “fix” is fantasy. There is no system serving more than five million kids, and that employs over 400,000 people, that all parties will look at and agree on.
Moreover, even if some consensus could be reached on those things, what would a successful “fix” even look like? Would public education be fixed if students performing at grade level increased from roughly 50% to 80%? Would students graduate without the need for graduation committees, which were created by the Legislature to routinely graduate students who don’t otherwise meet graduation requirements? Would more than 60% of our graduates be ready for life as adults? Would a significant number of Texas college freshmen not still need remedial courses? How much higher than 23% proficient on NAEP tests should Texas students rise in order to call it a day?
The Texas House of Representatives is denying a generation of kids in an objectively poor public education system the opportunity to find something better. The “unconstrained vision” sees those kids as acceptable collateral damage in pursuit of perfecting a system that could be improved in many ways, but is far from acceptable, much less perfect. Perhaps a future House will hold a different vision.