LUBBOCK, Texas — Amid an intensifying debate over whether Texas should use state money to subsidize private school tuitions, top Republicans argue a voucher program would increase school choice while statewide Democratic candidates warn such a program would uniquely harm rural schools.

“I strongly disagree with vouchers because it would only achieve one thing which is to pull money out of public schools,” Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor Mike Collier told KAMC News in August.

“It’s not a voucher,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick rebutted last week. “It’s saying to a parent – do you believe the money allocated to their child – should they have a say in that? We’re going to protect rural schools, so don’t buy into their argument.”

Democrats and public education activists argue that a school voucher program would siphon money and students away from public schools. Small and rural school districts especially worry that vouchers would force them to pay for other students’ private education even when there are no private school options in their area.

“It’s taking money out of the whole pie,” Seminole ISD superintendent Kyle Lynch said. “We’ve got to funnel our money into helping out students recover from learning loss, helping us close the achievement gap whether it be socioeconomic or ethnic gaps that we have in our system. We have a lot of work to do before we go try to give these tax credits to people who want to put their kids in private school.”

“If rural areas don’t tend to have private schools for kids to go to, then the existence of a voucher program is virtually moot,” said Richard Baumgartner, the director of East Lubbock charter school Rise Academy.

However, Baumgartner said he believes a voucher program could be beneficial if it reserved for low-income families and provides enough money to cover tuition bills.

“I’m open to the idea of vouchers, but it has to be very carefully thought through and structured to be the most appropriate use of public funds for children’s education,” he said. “What happens if you happen to live in a neighborhood where the local public school is underperforming chronically over time, and you have some grave concerns as a parent that your child will not get an adequate education? If we want some sense of equality, some sense of reasonable opportunity in Texas and in America, then we need to have options that allow parents to have some choices in terms of what they can do to most effectively educate their children.”

Baumgartner founded Rise Academy as a tuition-free charter school to provide a “superior education” to low-income and minority families. He says their families enjoy an A-rated education that is better than neighboring public schools. Rise would also not benefit from a voucher program, because they are already funded by state dollars.

Lynch argues, however, that public school districts of varying size already provide families a choice in their preferred educational environment, and vouchers would offer money to schools that are not subjected to the same state accountability standards.

“As soon as you take public money, you’re a public school. If you’re a public school and you’re taking public money, you have the same accountability academically, and we don’t always see that with private schools,” he said. “Any school that receives public tax dollars should be held accountable for student performance and its management of taxpayer resources. Public dollars means they are no longer private, they are public.”

Lynch argues much of the rhetoric falsely accusing public schools for teaching “critical race theory” or “pornography” are motivated by both politics and profit.

“There’s big money to be made in education. I think there are those out there who would love to have this sentiment that public schools are failing,” he said. “Without a doubt there is this motivation that we can make big money on this and we can give tax breaks to the people we want to give tax breaks to, but the reality is public schools need more public money.”

Baumgartner said one compromise for accountability may be that students at voucher-funded private schools would have to take the STAAR test, but some state requirements like that may even turn private schools away from vouchers.

“I can easily see why some private schools may choose not to participate because they see that the requirements from the state would be burdensome,” he said. “Just as it would be a choice matter for parents, it would be a choice for private schools whether they want to participate.”

He also considered the potential constitutional questions that may arise if the state were to offer public money to religious schools, one of many other difficulties with which legislators will have to grapple should this debate continue next legislative session

“There are potential issues of church and state separation there,” Baumgartner said. “If there is a voucher system, one compromise may have to be that it can only go to secular private schools. There are issues on both sides. there are possibilities perhaps to craft a coacher system that would be appropriate and with the purpose of creating more choice for parents in their children’s education.”

Ultimately, public schools hope to see another increase to public education funding through an increase in the basic allotment, the standardized dollar amount that the state gives districts for each student they teach.

“As long as we continue to raise that then public schools have flexibility to put those dollars where they need them,” Lynch said.