Private schools are ready to expand into smaller communities if Texas adopts voucher program

A student's school supplies on the first day of in-person classes in Texas on Sept. 8, 2020. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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Promise Academy, a Christian private school in northern Tyler, opened about nine years ago to provide low-income families with a low-cost private school education.

The mission of the school, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade on one campus, is to provide a Christian education to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. On average, parents pay $100 a month for the school year. Most students are Black or Hispanic, and 94% are considered low income.

Now, with education savings accounts — a school voucher-like program — a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott and some other Republican leaders, the Christian school dreams of expanding to serve more families.

“Promise Academy is right now on a waitlist in two of our grade levels, and the desire to serve all those kids is there,” said Sarah Cumming, co-founder and head of school at Promise Academy.

If vouchers are approved to allow state money to be spent on private education, leaders of other private schools have the same dream, potentially expanding the reach of programs into relatively underserved areas, particularly in rural parts of Texas.

The potential could play a role in the ongoing debate over whether to let families use taxpayer money to pay for private education. Some rural House Republicans remain skeptical of vouchers, saying they would hurt public schools in areas that are little served by private education. Some opponents also see expanding private schools as a threat, siphoning money and students away from public schools that form the backbone of rural communities.

According to a Texas Tribune analysis, there are about 1,180 private schools in the state, most of which are concentrated in Houston, Dallas, Austin and other big cities. Houston, the state’s largest city, is home to the most with roughly 150 private schools. To get these numbers, The Texas Tribune used data provided by Texas Private School Accreditation Commission and identified school locations through each school’s website or by phone.

Abbott convened a special legislative session earlier this month in large part to pass education savings accounts, but the likelihood of approval appears bleak as Democrats and rural Republicans continue to stand their ground against voucher programs.

Two main proposals have been filed in the special session. Senate Bill 1 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would give families access to $8,000 for private school tuition and related expenses. The $500 million program would serve about 1% of the state’s student population.

House Bill 1 by Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, would give parents 75% of the average amount that each school receives in per-student state and local funding. For the first year of HB 1, 25,000 Texas students would be eligible in the 2024-25 school year. That number would increase by 25,000 students each successive year, until 2027, when the cap would be removed.

But the limited scope of both proposals have not dimmed the hopes of expansion for private schools.

Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said private schools are “ready and willing” to expand, especially into rural areas, if Texas creates an education savings accounts program.

Colangelo said expansion will help new families get into private schools that they couldn’t previously afford or attend because of distance and it can potentially help families that are driving their children more than an hour to receive a private education.

Even with the promise of more accessibility, some rural leaders say private schools aren’t needed in their communities.

Bill Tarleton, executive director of the Texas Rural Education Association, said there aren’t many private school options across rural Texas — and those communities don’t need really need them as public schools are the hub for education and employment. The state would be better off spending more on teacher raises and other public school expenses, he said.

“There are some great private schools and small ones in smaller towns and cities. They're great,” he said. “I just don't think that public dollars should be used.”

While private schools hope a voucher-like program could help with expansion plans, Tarleton said vouchers can’t address accessibility problems. While private schools can reject unwanted students, public schools must educate every child.

Another concern for voucher opponents is that programs in other states have started small but ballooned, as seen in Arizona, where education savings accounts started with a few hundred kids but now will likely cost the state $1 billion. In Texas, both the House and Senate bills that would establish the voucher-like program have certain caps, and funding is limited to a certain extent.

Private school expansion would also add a new layer of competition for public schools, which are funded based on student attendance and compete for children with charter schools. If a child leaves a district, the district loses funding.

Those against vouchers believe that private schools will rapidly expand and will lead to an exodus of public school kids to private schools.

But, Cumming said expansion is not that easy, especially since both bills would require schools to be accredited, which she says is a thorough process. It generally takes about three years for a private school to get accreditation. This includes reviewing finances, school curriculum and staff and compliance with certain federal and state laws.

She also doesn’t think private schools will expand aggressively as funding is limited. Schools need to think about sustainability, so if a voucher program is funded for a certain number of years, it makes no sense for schools to expand if funding could dry up.

Jay Ferguson, head of school at Grace Community School, a private Christian school in Tyler, said tuition is on the high-end — up to about $16,000 a year per student. With limited funds available in the voucher proposals before lawmakers, he said, it doesn’t make sense for his school to expand into smaller communities where fewer residents are likely to afford tuition — even with access to taxpayer money.

Don Davis, head of school at Second Baptist School, a private Christian school in Houston, is pro-education savings accounts, saying the program will allow his school to expand into communities in Houston that don’t have a private school and those that are home to low-income families.

“It would allow us to reach more families that their current financial situation does not allow them the freedom or opportunity to choose the education that they desire for their children,” Davis said.

Currently, Second Baptist School has six campuses, expanding from one location in the past three years. Five of those campuses operate under a hybrid model, with students attending class three days a week and working remotely for two days, allowing Second Baptist to keep tuition low, Davis said.

One campus is still a five-day-a-week school, where tuition is more than $20,000. The hybrid campuses charge less than $10,000.

Davis estimates that if an education savings account program is passed into law, his enrollment could increase from about 2,300 students to more than 5,000 without adding new campuses.

“We'll continue to try to supply the demand,” Davis said. “Our desire would be to provide educational equity to the families in Houston to reach those families that currently don't have access to Christian education.”

Disclosure: Texas Private Schools Association has been financial supporters 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.