OPINION — When State Rep. Drew Darby strongly came out against school vouchers, the Republican conservatives lashed out at him, accusing him of being a Republican In Name Only, or an RINO.
Last week, we asked Rep. Darby to defend his position. After all, school vouchers are touted as a conservative solution to what many see is a huge issue: Failing public schools. Also, Governor Greg Abbott has pledged to call the legislature back into session if it doesn’t pass a meaningful school voucher program by the end of this session this week. Yet, Darby has his reasons for not wanting to support vouchers.
Let’s face it, the Concho Valley where most of the votes in District 72 are, is not clamoring for vouchers. And, Darby believes correctly, that vouchers will upset the smaller communities around the region. Vouchers are just not worth the practical or political risk in rural Texas.
Back in March, NBC News went to Robert Lee to learn about the rural Texas resistance to the GOP’s private school choice plan. The NBC News reporter learned that if Robert Lee ISD lost only a handful of students to a private school funded by taxpayer-funded vouchers, the shrinking revenue could kill the district. Closer to San Angelo, Wall ISD faces a similar tight budget as does every small public school district in Tom Green County.
Darby was asked what would happen to his political career if the Wall Hawks ceased to exist?
"I cannot imagine our schools not being the forefront of the identity of our communities. If those schools go away, then our communities go away,” he said.
Darby stressed that the question before the legislature today isn’t about school choice, rather is is about, “Taking public funds and diverting them to private or parochial schools with no testing and no open enrollment policies.” In other words, the funds would be dispersed without the same accountability to private schools that public schools have now.
Proponents of vouchers, proposed to cover about $8,000 per year for each Texas student, claim that allowing widespread school choice will spur innovation and better schools in the public and private space because of good ‘ol American capitalist innovation.
Darby disagrees. Rather that spur the existing public schools to improve, it will force public schools to accept the less capable students — students with disabilities or learning disorders. This will saddle public schools with a much more challenging mission than any private school without open enrollment. Private schools can cherry pick the best and brightest. The students, wherever they are educated, Darby argued, need not just the chance to thrive but just to survive. Having all Texas students survive a vigorous, mandatory and universal K-12 education is important to our state and nation, he said.
Darby held up the Texas Declaration of Independence, written in 1836, to support his argument against vouchers. Among the many reasons Texicans fought for a divorce from Santa Anna’s Mexico was the dictator’s refusal to educate Texas children. It states:
“It [Santa Anna’s Mexico] has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources, (the public domain,) and although it is an axiom in political science, that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government.”
Then, like now, better government requires a universally-educated community and voting population — and only the government has the resources to pay for it.
Darby added that the $8,000 or so being proposed as a voucher will not cover the cost of the tuition at many of the private schools he surveyed. In an informal survey of private school parents in the Houston area, we found most private school tuitions are in the $10,000 to $11,000 annual cost range. There are exceptions, but only one that we found.
Watch: Rep. Drew Darby in his own words on his opposition to vouchers for private schools:
Those arguing that an $8,000 government stipend for private school is capitalism need to rethink what capitalism really is.
The very act of granting billions of taxpayer money into the private school industry adds a rather anti-capitalist ingredient to the school voucher stew. That is, government largesse. Whenever the government injects money into a problem, the problem isn’t solved and more problems arise.
That $11,000 tuition charged at a Houston private school today will quickly become $19,000 after adding the government handout. It works like this every time!
When in the military, we had a housing stipend or allowance. When stationed at Andersen AFB in Guam as a single young officer, my housing allowance was $600 per month. Curiously, the cost to rent a place off-base was exactly $600 per bedroom. A four-bedroom rental house was $2,400 and this was in 1988! The landlords, like private school CFOs, will quickly adjust their pricing models to incorporate the government’s handout.
It could be worse that this. Gunning to grab that money could be under-funded private school startups that can fail, or outright crooks who will create private school startups to harvest the billions that will be spent on vouchers yet fail to educate Texas children. Then there may be a rush to home school children where some parents will pocket the cash while their child under the parent’s supervision (or non-supervision) plays Grand Theft Auto all day on an iPad. These are the moral risks of vouchers that no one is talking about.
On the other hand, there are voucher programs that seemingly work. The Wall Street Journal Opinion Page opined earlier this month that Indiana is expanding a voucher program that seems to work and has since 2011. The program is means-tested and requires the student to qualify for numerous prerequisites, such as be currently enrolled at a failing public school or to be a foster child. As of 2023, only 53,000 Indiana students qualified. The Indiana legislature passed a budget at the end of April that expands the state’s school voucher program where twice as many will qualify, the WSJ reported.
The call for vouchers by conservatives is a response to their perception that Texas public schools no longer share their values. Critical Race Theory and the concept of “equity” has permeated in the public education space for a few years. There are also moral concerns of how transgenderism and homosexuality are allegedly promoted in public schools. It may be. A concerned reader forwarded me a screenshot of a San Angelo ISD counselor with pronouns listed in the counselor’s email signature. In 2020, during the fight over renaming Lee Middle School, the San Angelo ISD administration designed a series of public forums that were branded with CRT terminology by calling the forums “Engaging Equity.”
What CRT is replacing is the behavior moderation that was a benefit of a common belief in a Christian worldview for the first 200 years after our country’s founding. For public schools, the common Christian worldview began to fizzle in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment. Therefore, today, unable to reference Biblical truth, manmade and tyrannical concepts like CRT and “equity” have become the replacement to control behavior in the classroom.
We can agree that the toxic culture war — that prayer has been replaced with pronouns— is impacting our schools and Christian families feel threatened. But is creating a school voucher bureaucracy the answer?
Maybe it is, but not in the current form we are seeing from Austin. The WSJ praised the Republican tactic in Indiana that ushered in a very limited voucher program in 2011. Voters have experienced the success of limited vouchers and now are ready for more, so the new budget and law will double the number eligible this year.
Incremental change, the WSJ argued, is how the left took over everything. Maybe a limited voucher law is needed as a tactic for conservatives keep pushing forward with solutions to fix our broken public schools?
For Darby, however, even if he can be persuaded to support a limited voucher system, he will not if it threatens the survival of the Wall Hawks, or the survival in general of public school children throughout his district.
“Public schools are a repository for everybody … and the very lifeblood of our communities especially in rural Texas,” Darby said.
For conservatives, a better solution will be to work on fixing the culture in schools incrementally instead of wanting to completely destroy the public school system with an ambitious school voucher law.