Greg Abbott by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), a longtime champion of school choice, has convened a special legislative session to pass school choice legislation that stalled during the regular session earlier this year. A couple of weeks into the special session, which began on October 9th, the Texas Senate has done its part, passing legislation to create an Education Savings Account (ESA) program that will provide school choice to families across the nation’s second most populous state. The ball is now once again in the House’s court, where school choice legislation has died multiple times in the past.  

“We are closer than we’ve ever been on a deal that will deliver school choice for you, your families, and all Texans,” Abbott declared at the start of the special session. The Governor has indicated he would summon a second special session if there is no deal by the end of the current special session.

The ESA bill approved by the Texas Senate last week would offer ESAs funded with nearly $8,000 annually to an estimated 3.5 million qualifying students. There is plenty of evidence that school choice would help millions of kids access better education options, leading to better outcomes.

As the CATO Institute explained in a 2018 report, researchers have consistently found a strong correlation between charter school enrollment and student outcomes. One 2019 study from the liberal-leaning Urban Institute found that college enrollment rates were 15% higher for low-income Florida students who participated in the state’s school choice program compared to low-income students who didn’t. Another comprehensive study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which examined results from 41 major urban locations in the US, found a similar result:

“The typical student in an urban charter school receives the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning growth (0.055 s.d.’s) in math and 28 days of additional growth (0.039 s.d.’s) in reading compared to their matched peers in TPS [traditional public schools].”

Teachers’ unions and their allies often argue that this correlation-based data is misleading. Motivated parents, they say, are more likely to enroll their children in school choice programs, which means charter school students merely receive better home support on average, not a better education. 

Luckily, there is a way to account for this “confounding variable” in research. Many school choice programs with limited funds rely on a lottery system to determine which students get vouchers, meaning that pure luck, not the level of parental commitment, splits charter school students from public school students. A variety of studies have taken advantage of this “natural experiment” to study the outcomes of student samples who, other than the schools they attend, are completely identical. This type of experiment is known as a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) and is considered the gold standard in science. 

So, what are the results? According to a recent systematic meta-analysis of fifteen RCT studies from the University of Arkansas, twelve found significant improvements in both math and reading scores for voucher recipients. In other words, voucher programs work. 

Texas House members should keep this information in mind. The state currently ranks 35th in education, and only about half of Lone Star State schoolchildren can read at grade level. School choice has the chance to improve millions of young lives and change the long-term trajectory of his state for the better.

If all of that isn’t reason enough for members of the Republican-led Texas House, lawmakers in Austin should consider that there can be electoral ramifications for opposing school choice, as the nearly half dozen Iowa legislators who voted against school choice, only to subsequently lose a primary over it, can attest.

In fact, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) yesterday declared that he would support primary challengers to Texas legislators who oppose the ESA bill that recently passed out of the Texas Senate. “Nothing matters more for Texas,” Cruz tweeted yesterday about the school choice debate happening in the Texas statehouse. Cruz went on to add that he “will vigorously support conservative, pro-school-choice primary opponents against Republicans who vote ‘no’.”