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The Bottom Line Robert Aguirre: Lessons from the Horizon Edgewood Tuition Voucher Program

Robert Aguirre has spent nearly fifty years in business, and devoted nearly forty of those years to being an education reform activist. He was an education reform adviser on both Reagan campaigns, both GHW Bush campaigns, and on numerous gubernatorial campaigns in multiple states. He has worked in over twenty states on reform/choice legislation, and is among the top ten people in the country in terms of designing choice legislation.

From 1989 through 2009, he worked with Nobel Laureate Dr. Milton Friedman, Ted Fortsmann, John Walton, Dr. Jim Lieninger, Pete Peters, William Simon, Betsy DeVos, Steve Schuck, Patrick Rooney and many others in the crusade to reform public education. They had all come from many years of investing time and money into “public-private partnerships” with school districts, without anything to show for it.

During the 1989-2009 time period, Robert calculates they spent about $800 million, all private funds, in collective reform efforts (much of that disbursed under Robert’s supervision). When they started their efforts, they estimated that it would take twenty years to reform our nation’s system of education. It hasn’t happened yet.

In the mid-1990s, Robert worked with Houston ISD Superintendent (and later Secretary of Education) Rod Paige to design and implement a program in HISD that would allow a failing student to “transfer” to the private school of their choice, and the district would “sub-contract” with that school to educate the student. It was wildly popular and wildly successful–until the next school board election.

The choice movement started with a “voucher” mechanism. Then came a corporate tax credit mechanism, followed quickly in some states by a personal tax credit program. A fourth mechanism was then developed: education savings accounts (ESAs).  ESAs are currently the preferred mechanism.

There are some results to show for these leaders’ efforts. Today, we have 31 states that have passed 61 school choice programs of some type. Unfortunately, this is not nearly enough critical mass to create the needed pressure for systemic change in terms of demand and market share.

ACTE sat down with Robert to hear his thoughts on next steps for our Center’s work of improving academic outcomes for all public school students:

Robert, what led you into Education Reform work?

My daughter was about to start kindergarten. Neighbors had said the local school wasn’t good, and there was one farther down the way that was better. I tried to enroll my daughter at the better school down the way. They would not allow us to register, and my denied request led me to an appeal to the School Board. They said no—assigned school only. We would have to move in order to be in the catchment area of the school if we wanted her to attend the school that we thought was better for her. That’s when I realized the amount of money you make equals your children’s educational future.

In terms of Education Reform, is there anything that has worked?

I was fortunate to be part of a group in the late 80’s and early 90’s that started a think tank called the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). We had a meeting of the minds, where the only thing that could change the system of education were market forces and the only thing that would create market forces is giving parents the opportunity to select the school they felt was best for this children. In other words, education dollars follows the child. John Walton worked with us and he was incredible advocate with a huge heart. It was TPPF that founded the CEO (Children’s Education Opportunity) Foundation that later sponsored the Horizon Edgewood Tuition Voucher Program (EVP).

“CEO aimed to change lives and demonstrate that a universal leveling of the playing field between public and private sector schooling options would improve the entire system. They hoped that would help launch a political movement to permanently expand the choices available in every school district.” (Dr. John Merrifield, University of Texas)

Mixed results. While the program worked, the hope that this would expand choice across the nation has not happened as we hoped. The domino effect did not take place.

Edgewood School District (EISD) is one of 16 districts in San Antonio, Texas, and it is located on the economically depressed near west side of town where I grew up. It had 14,500 students and was selected for the EVP because of its poor academic performance.

For 10 years (1998-2008) every student in the district was offered a voucher to attend the public or private schools of their choice. The experiment disproved a lot of myths:

  • Only 12.7% of students took advantage of their voucher. The children who left the district were on average two grade levels below standard, and their family median income was 37% lower than district average
  • Enrollment actually went up in the district. EISD retained more students than choiced out of the district
  • Revenue went up (more students and more families wanted to move into the school district and property values went up, new housing for multi and single family were built)
  • Teacher salaries went up (with the third highest salary increases in the state over 10 years)
  • Academic scores, graduation rates, and college attendance rates improved in the district, while drop-out rates decreased
    • EISD went from 0 exemplary schools to 3 (Texas Education Agency TEA)
    • EISD went from 3 recognized schools to 9 (even with tightened requirements including formerly exempt students like those with limited English proficiency included in passage rates)
    • EISD eliminated its one low-performing campus rating
    • In three years, reading scores were up 16% and math scores were up 21%

By the Numbers (Statistics are provided from the Evaluation of the CEO Horizon Edgewood Tuition Voucher Program by the E.G. West Institute for Effective Schooling, University of Texas.)

  • Property values within the boundaries of EISD rose 86.4% over the ten years of the program
  • The EVP (Edgewood Voucher Program) netted $10.6 million in additional property tax revenue
  • The EVP’s effect on increased graduation rates and property values more than offset $15 million of state funding losses
  • Edgewood had a 1% white population while control districts had a 5% average
  • Edgewood’s poverty rate was 94% compared to the control districts average of 84%
  • From 1998-2004 EISD’s graduation rate grew 38.6% (much faster than the control districts’ 9.6%)
  • EISD narrowed the gap between the district and state average on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) from 23.7% below the state to 5.5% below the state in 2002
  • From 2003 to 2006 the percent of students passing the TASK grew at an annual rate of 24% in relation to the 12% state average
  • EISD eliminated the gap in passage rates between the Hispanic and the general student population
  • Voucher participants in the first year were similar to the EISD students, scoring 37th percentile in math and 35th percentile in reading on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (far below the state averages)
  • An equal percent of students with learning disabilities applied as qualify in EISD (8%)
  • 96% of voucher students were Latino compared to the 93% of EISD students
  • The median family income of EVP participants was 37% lower than EISD families
  • Five private schools enrolled the substantial majority of the voucher users, two of which were created because of the voucher program and continue after vouchers are gone
  • 82% of families cited improved academics, 10% cited religious instruction, and 8% cited safety, as the main reason for seeking a voucher
  • 100% of families said the vouchers had great positive impact on the development of their children
  • 40% of survey respondents had three or more children participating in the EVP
  • Voucher use was growing until six years into the funding, budget constraints prompted the limitation of voucher use to continuing users

Please share some lessons learned from your Ed Reform work.

#1: No amount of federal, state, or private money thrown at the system will cause it to change. But you can change the “marketplace” within which that system is forced to improve or perish, and in which innovation and capacity building can occur as driven by parental demand.

#2: Passing reform/choice legislation is the first battle of the war. After that, the policy needs to be protected, it needs to be implemented, and it needs to be actively promoted.

#3: In working on education reform I looked at other countries in the western hemisphere and discovered the U.S. and Communist Cuba are the only countries in this hemisphere where education dollars do not follow the student to the school that best serves their needs (public or private).

#4: When studying the economics and demographics of our US education system, one must conclude that it is, hands down, the most enduring and most effective racial and economic segregation mechanism in the history of our country. This success is not something for us to be proud of.

Do you have any advice for those engaged in Education Reform?

First, working at the state level through legislation is the right approach. The national and district levels do not provide sustainable change.

Second, reformers must remember that the end game is to improve educational outcomes for all students – with emphasis on the students, not on institutions. This means that it doesn’t matter if the child is in a traditional public school, magnate school, charter school, homeschooled or is in a private school. So long as our national educational output improves–that is what really matters.

Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?