The Texas Conservative Research Institute education conference centered around two specific aspects of the school choice debate: the benefits of parental empowerment and the objections from the education establishment.

Panelists included State Sens. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), State Reps. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Dennis Paul (R-Houston), and Mike Schofield (R-Katy). Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also spoke at the summit.

While there are 61 parental choice programs in 30 states and Washington D.C. – not one of them exists in Texas. But as State Sen. Taylor pointed out, Texas, in theory, has education choice only for families that have the ability to move. But those parents who can’t afford to move for a better education can do little more than watch as their kids get stuck in failing campuses and districts.

President and CEO of EdChoice, Robert Enlow, using what he called, “the best data on school choice in America,” determined that out of 100 studies on choice, 87 determined it had a positive impact, 10 determined no result, and only 3 determined a negative result.

It also showed that families given a choice tend to be accepting of others’ choices, such as religious freedom. The study also showed that with choice parents tend to be more involved in their child’s education.

In regards to why Texas is in the minority of states without parental choice, Bohac said the missing ingredients are, “leadership from the top and leverage.” Finishing off by saying, “We really need the governor to weigh in heavily this next session.”

Opponents often say that, if enacted, parental choice would drain public school coffers, but panelist Mayes Middleton addressed that concern by acknowledging the proportionate per student increase that happens when a student leaves a district.

The education savings account model being proposed would still allot money to districts, although reduced, for every student who opts for a different school. So in other words, the district would receive more money for a student that is taking advantage of a choice program than it would if the student’s parents moved to another state or put their child in private school.

Bettencourt brought up another often overlooked benefit that he came across in a University of Arkansas study, that school choice can help reduce juvenile crime.

Patrick Wolf, the study’s researcher, studied the Milwaukee voucher program, the oldest in the nation. He determined that because of the city’s voucher program Milwaukee saw a 79 percent reduction for felonies, 93 percent reduction in drug-related crime, and an overall 42 percent reduction for any conviction for school-aged males. Similar results were found in a 2002 study on North Carolina charter schools.

Last week State Sen. Menendez (D-San Antonio) said that parental choice would codify discrimination giving schools the right to reject based on pre-determined factors, but the panel pointed out that based on the history of choice throughout the country, minority, inner-city, and low-income families are the majority who take advantage of the program.

Most studies show that competition is the best option for students, parents, and even school districts. With a number of groups, activists, and legislators exploring the parental choice option there may be some positive change next session.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.