Texas Voucher Proposal Spurs Mix of Excitement, Wariness for Homeschoolers

Homeschoolers wonder if ESAs will give much-needed financial help or represent an unwanted government involvement in their kids’ educations.

The Faltesek-Harris family works on home school curriculum in a study space Oct. 12, 2023, at the Austin Central Library. (Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune)

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By September 2020, Crista Swier’s second grade daughter had had enough of online school.

Classes were being held by video conference because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Swier said her daughter was too young to know how to use a computer, and wasn’t learning. What’s worse, students were posting “nasty messages” on the school’s online forum, and Swier said, “teachers were basically disciplining kids on the other end of the computer.”

That frustration drew Swier, a resident of Pflugerville north of Austin, to become one of tens of thousands of Texans who pulled their child out of public school and began home schooling. That year alone, almost 30,000 students in grades 7-12 left Texas public schools to begin home schooling — the highest number the Texas Education Agency has recorded since it started keeping track in the 1990’s.

Three years later, conservative lawmakers in the state are pushing a measure that would provide state support to that growing home-school community. This month, at the behest of Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Legislature convened a special session in which “school choice” is the top subject. The Senate has already passed a measure that would introduce a voucher-style program called education savings accounts, in which parents who do not enroll their kids in public school would have access to state funds to pay for qualifying educational expenses. For home-schoolers, that would mean access to $1,000 per child from the state each year. The House, where a small faction of skeptical Republican lawmakers has teamed up with Democrats to block similar proposals in the past, introduced its version of a voucher bill Thursday night. It also included $1,000 for home school parents, but capped the number of education savings accounts at 25,000 in the first year.

Much of the debate has focused on how the accounts could be used to pay for private school tuition — qualifying parents sending their kids to private schools would be eligible to receive $8,000 in the Senate bill. But data suggests that home-schoolers might be the biggest group of beneficiaries. There were nearly 480,000 home-schooled children in Texas at the end of the 2020-21 academic year, according to a data analysis by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. That’s 200,000 more than were enrolled in private schools.

Families that choose to home-school often spend several hundred dollars each month on their children’s textbooks, elective activities like sports and arts, membership in home-school co-ops and subscriptions to learning tools. But the home schooling community is deeply divided on the idea. Currently, Texas does not regulate home schooling in any way, and many families fear that accepting taxpayer money to support home schooling expenses could invite increased regulation of how they teach their kids.

“We do have zero oversight, zero accountability, and we want to keep it that way,” said Faith Bussey, president of Texans for Homeschool Freedom, a group of 17,000 members largely organized on Facebook that opposes anything resembling vouchers.

The voucher bill has been promoted by Abbott as increasing “school choice.” Instead, the group worries that legislation like Senate Bill 1 poses “a real threat to parental freedom,” according to its website.

Bussey, an Arlington resident who home-schools three kids for moral and religious reasons, spoke to The Texas Tribune from the Capitol on the first day of the special session, where she was urging lawmakers to oppose any school voucher bill. She said there are many different reasons parents choose to home-school — moral and religious beliefs, bullying, safety concerns and inadequate accommodations for disabilities are among the most commonly cited — and with that, families choose a variety of home schooling styles and curriculum.

Many families work together forming home-school co-ops that meet together regularly and pool resources to pay for supplies and instruction. Others will enroll in online programs. Others will do ‘unschooling,’ which is more loosely organized and can be catered to the child’s interest in each particular subject.

Even if a bill such as SB 1 passes with no added government oversight, Bussey said, “it’s the nature of government” that eventually the state would seek to regulate home schooling more heavily. That, she said, threatens the array of parents’ choices.

“I know my kids better than anybody else,” she said.

For some parents, the fear of government regulation is rooted in the history of home schooling in Texas. Houston resident Jube Dankworth recalled the fear she felt home schooling her children before it was legally codified by the Texas Supreme Court in 1994. Up until the ruling, Dankworth’s family would practice “CPS drills,” in which her children would suddenly hide in case Child Protective Services came knocking.

Today, Dankworth’s four kids have all grown and attended college, and she is president of Texas Home Educators, a group that helps home-school families connect and find resources to make home schooling easier and more affordable. The group is also against education savings accounts. She said the home-school community in Texas provides lots of support, and families are able to home-school using only the internet and a library card.

“We’ve already built this infrastructure without any help from the government,” she said.

Opponents in the home-school community find themselves aligned with many public school advocates, who fear that a voucher program would pull money away from a state public school system that is already strapped for funds. SB 1 has faced stiff resistance from people who say the accounts fund education methods that receive little to no oversight. And, opponents argue, they would essentially be handouts to middle-class and wealthy parents, who can afford to pay a full tuition bill or have the educational backgrounds and financial flexibility to stay at home teach their kids.

But other home-school families say they would welcome financial help, noting that in addition to potential lost income from one parent staying home, they spend thousands of dollars per year to give their kids an education.

Joi Faltesek started home schooling after becoming frustrated with the “red tape” and rigidity of public school that she thought was stifling her son’s creativity.

“I honestly felt like I got my son back. I mean, he was happy again. He was smiling,” Faltesek said.

Her son has since gone to college, and now she teaches her two daughters and runs the Be Awesome Homeschool Social Club. Faltesek estimates that she spends about $300 per month per child on elective activities and online subscriptions to academic services.

The financial cost of home schooling is “a hard pill to swallow,” said Faltesek, especially when her son was in high school-level science programs that required either buying chemistry sets or enrolling in a program at an additional monthly fee.

Swier plans to continue home schooling her youngest daughter, but her sons are still attending public high school. “I think vouchers are amazing,” she told the Tribune while attending a Halloween party in Austin organized by Faltesek’s home-school social group.

“There are parents that want to home-school but lack the resources to do it,” she said.

Cristina Loor-Maldonado, a resident of Kyle, said it costs about $400 each month to home-school her fifth grade daughter and son in kindergarten, with sports programs and art classes costing the most. School safety, bullying, and the ability to spend more time with her family all factored into her decision to take her kids out of school, which she said has paid off because her kids are both testing at or above their grade level.

“The opportunities are so vast compared to public school,” she said.

Loor-Maldonado’s husband’s job allows her to support home schooling expenses, and she said if education savings accounts are ever ”connected to any type of stipulation,” that home schooling families “won’t go for it.”

“If you’re concerned about requirements that will come with the program, then don’t participate in the program,” said Jeremy Newman, vice president of policy and engagement at the Texas Homeschool Coalition, a group that does legislative advocacy, legal services and general support for home schooling families. The organization favors education savings accounts.

Newman, who was home-schooled for religious reasons, rejected the idea that vouchers would later be used to regulate home schooling and said it has not happened in any state with an existing voucher program. Instead, Newman said the added financial help will “empower the parents to make the decisions that are best for their kids.”

But the fear of regulation is not the only reason some home schooling parents oppose savings accounts. Even though they left public schools, some parents still worry about them losing funding.

Margaret Paulson of Austin said her son’s kindergarten classroom had become “total chaos” following the departure of the teacher, who was replaced by a first year teacher who trained to teach fourth grade. Following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in May 2022, safety concerns and pent up frustration with how the school was being run led Paulson to try home schooling for the 2022-23 academic year.

Despite her experience, Paulson said “public schools serve a purpose,” and she remains “skeptical” of voucher-style programs that could direct money toward for-profit schools.

Before moving to Texas more than four years ago, Michele Arroyo participated in a home-school program in Washington state that was facilitated by the public school system. Her son, who is neurodivergent and has a visual impairment, was bullied in regular public school. Arroyo said Texas should be increasing public education funding, particularly for schools viewed as underperforming.

“The lower your rating is, the more resources you should get,” Arroyo said.

Disclosure: Texas Public Policy Foundation have 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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