By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune
“In audio, high-ranking TEA official admits public school funds could drop with voucher-like programs” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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A high-ranking Texas Education Agency official was caught on audio advocating for voucher-like programs on behalf of Gov. Greg Abbott and admitting that funding to public school districts could decrease if such a policy passes this Legislative session.
On the audio, which was secretly recorded and posted on YouTube by Lynn Davenport, a conservative commentator and public school parent, TEA Deputy Commissioner Steve Lecholop is heard on the phone with an unidentified mother who was displeased with the Joshua Independent School District and transferred her child to a parochial school.
Lecholop asked the woman if she wanted to share her story with a speechwriter working for the governor, who wants to allow parents to take the money that would have funded their students’ learning at a public school and spend it instead on alternative schooling options, such as tuition for private school. Abbott has touted such an idea as one of his priorities this session.
Lecholop, a former San Antonio ISD school board member, tells the woman in the call that sharing her story would be “a good way for you to stick it to Joshua ISD.”
“Your tax money should be allowed to go to your child’s education,” Lecholop said on the recording, which was provided to The Texas Tribune. “Instead, you’re paying your property taxes, but you’re also paying tuition and so it’s like double dipping.”
But Lecholop acknowledged that such a program could have a negative financial impact on districts because losing students would also mean losing state funding.
“School districts, what they have to do if they lose a student, [is] be smart about how they allocate their resources, and maybe that’s one less fourth grade teacher,” Lecholop said.
The recording appears to be the first time a top TEA official has spoken explicitly in support of expanding voucher-like programs in the state.
The TEA, which is tasked with overseeing and supporting K-12 schools in the state, tends to shy away from publicly entering political debates and has walked around the question of whether an expansion of voucher-like programs would harm public schools. During a Texas Senate committee hearing earlier this month, when a senator asked TEA Commissioner Mike Morath his thoughts on vouchers possibly taking money away from public schools, he said only that it “potentially depends on how any program like that would be structured.”
The call also gives a glimpse into how closely state education officials might be working with the governor’s office to support his agenda. Abbott previously tasked the TEA with developing standards that ban books with “overtly sexual” content in schools and told the agency to find out which schools had “pornographic” books.
Abbott appoints the agency’s commissioner. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, the TEA said Lechelop’s comments during the conversation were meant to “help address concerns raised by a parent and to connect her with an opportunity to share more about her child’s educational experience.”
The TEA did not immediately respond to a question about whether it’s appropriate for an agency employee to help the governor with a political issue. When asked if Lecholop’s comments represent the agency’s view on the expansion of voucher-like programs this session, the TEA said it “is in favor of all students having access to a high-quality education. The Agency supports school systems in this effort to improve outcomes for all public school students in Texas.”
Lecholop apologized in a statement Friday, saying his comments about Joshua ISD were “emotionally charged and unbecoming of someone serving in my position.”
“My comments neither convey my feelings toward this school system and its leadership nor do they reflect the fair and impartial governance support our office strives to provide on a daily basis,” he said.
Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, an organization that opposes vouchers, said in a statement that the recording was “reprehensible.”
“The very agency charged with state-level provision of the constitutional and statutory duty to provide access to a free public education to all Texas children shouldn’t actively collude with the governor in rank partisan politics aimed at tearing down the very education system it is the agency’s sole function to support,” Holmes said.
The debate over “school choice” is going to be a hotly debated topic this session as top lawmakers have signaled that expanding such programs is a top priority.
School choice is a term used to describe programs that give parents state money to send their kids to schools outside of the state’s public education system. Texas already practices some forms of school choice, as parents can choose to send their children to free charter schools or transfer them to schools within or outside of their district.
The most common school choice program is vouchers, which are state-sponsored scholarships for private schools. This term has also become shorthand for opponents when talking about measures that would take taxpayer money from public schools.
Education savings accounts have emerged as a top voucher-like option this session, with Abbott voicing his support for legislation that would enact such a program. Other states that have approved savings accounts allow parents to receive the money that the state pays public schools to educate their children and instead use the funds to pay for their children’s private school, online schooling or private tutors.
Lawmakers in the past have tried to pass voucher-like programs but have failed as rural lawmakers have stood in the way. In rural communities, both school officials and lawmakers fear that such programs would hurt their school districts, which act as important community hubs and are usually some of their biggest job creators.
Conservative lawmakers believe the backing from parents and conservative groups displeased with public schools over pandemic response mandates and about how race and history are taught in the classroom will give them the momentum to expand voucher-like programs this Legislative session.
Disclosure: Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/14/texas-education-agency-vouchers/.
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