The following was presented on Oct. 10, 2023.
Jennifer Allmon, Executive Director
My name is Jennifer Allmon, and I am the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, testifying in support of SB 1.
Fundamentally, we believe parents have the right and responsibility to direct their children’s education and Education Savings Accounts should provide lower income families more options to choose the best educational environment for their children.
SB 1 meets most of the bishops’ criteria for supporting parental choice legislation, which includes accountability through accreditation and the administration of a norm-referenced assessment, strong religious liberty and private school autonomy protections, and an attempt at prioritization of the poor and vulnerable.
Prioritization of Applications
This bill allocates available positions according to income and disability categories. This is an improvement over the regular session as it focuses on individual families rather than schools.
We know there are many families who earn more than the federal poverty level and make great sacrifices to send their children to private school. They manage to afford tuition through working multiple jobs, scholarships, and assistance from grandparents.
We support the universal structure that allows a pathway for all families. However, we have strong concerns that the percentage allocations do not achieve the goal of prioritizing low-income families as the language says “at most” 40% will be in the low income category.
That means that 60% of those enrolled in the program will have more income than those on the waiting list in category one. While we appreciate the effort to include families at a variety of income levels, we think that the percentage for category one should say “at least” and then you can consider the phrase “at least” or “at most” for the remaining prioritization categories.
Our accreditation process covers curriculum standards and fiscal oversight in a responsible way. Accreditation requires that the curricula used in private schools be equivalent or greater in rigor to that used in public school, but there is flexibility in that choice.
ALL schools should be held accountable to ensure a high academic standard.
The Texas Private School Accreditation Commission (TEPSAC) coordinates with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to ensure quality in private schools by monitoring and approving accreditors for non-public elementary schools.
This accountability has been in place since 1986 when the TEA Commissioner of Education recognized the accreditation responsibilities of TEPSAC.
Participation requires accreditation standards comparable to TEA standards and preserves the integrity of schools. These standards include, but are not limited to:
- Compliance with applicable state and federal statutes;
- Effective administration and governance;
- Annual administration of a nationally norm-referenced exam such as the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford Test, or the Terra Nova test;
- The teaching of a balanced curriculum that meets and exceeds public school standards;
- Hiring qualified instructional leaders with college degrees;
- Student achievement; and
- Indicator based quality of learning.
Insinuations that this bill, or any other which requires accreditation, would allow for poor quality or fly-by-night schools is offensive to the 920 accredited private schools in your districts providing quality education to Texas schoolchildren for decades, a handful for over a century.
Capacity to Serve
Finally, I would like to address our capacity to serve.
Our Catholic schools accommodate students with identified needs and provide instruction that builds a strong foundation for academic success. We are not only a viable option for a student’s academic needs; we also foster an environment where all children learn to care for one another and embrace their differences. The goal is to provide all students with the instruction they need to succeed as learners and achieve high standards alongside their friends and neighbors.
All our bishops and diocesan schools offices are supportive of the individual Catholic schools welcoming students under this bill and others with religious liberty protections. We estimate more than 90% of our schools will participate and have the capacity to add about 20,000 students.
- Our average K-8 tuition is $6,800 and average high school tuition is $10,700.
- 47% of our students receive tuition assistance and the average financial assistance provided is $3,400.
- 89% of Catholic schools serve students with special needs and schools report that an average of 11% of the student body having identified special needs.
Most students will continue to benefit from a public-school education, because the many advantages offered by public schools, such as sports and other extra-curricular activities, are attractive to families.
It is unrealistic, however, to expect public school to be everything to every child. It is a win-win for communities when all children can flourish in the educational setting best suited for them.