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As Texas debates school vouchers, plan faces a big opponent: high school football

Texas high school football coaches have thrown a flag at the idea of vouchers, citing fears that Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan would take money from athletics and entice players to jump to private schools.

The effects of vouchers would be a loss for high school football in a state where 171,000 students played the sport in 2022 and Friday night lights are a cornerstone from Longview to Odessa, current and former public school coaches say.

“It will affect athletics. I can tell you that right now,” said former Aledo football coach Tim Buchanan, who won eight state championships in 25 years leading the Bearcats.

Their comments come as lawmakers in Austin prepare to debate a wide-ranging education bill in the Texas House that includes an education savings account proposal. It is the furthest a voucher-like program has made it in the chamber this year. The Senate has already passed its version of the program.

If the Texas Legislature were a football game, Friday’s debate stands as the key play that could turn the outcome.

For months, Gov. Greg Abbott has made education savings accounts a policy priority, vowing to call lawmakers back again and again for as long as it takes to get the measure to his desk. He has followed through on the promise, bringing lawmakers in for two special sessions with the voucher-like program on the call.

The House bill gives students about $10,500 in tax dollars each year for private school or other expenses, while a Senate proposal allocates $8,000 per student.

Coaches said they are worried about the impacts the program would have on school funding, including for athletics like high school football. They also worried about players transferring to private schools and warned that private schools focused primarily on football — rather than a student’s holistic education — could open.

But coaches in private schools doubted those fears would come to pass.

“I think the huge concern from public schools is that they’re going to have a whole bunch of kids leave to go to private school,” said Coach Daniel Novakov, the head football coach at Parish Episcopal School in Dallas who has led the team to four back-to-back state TAPPS Division I championships. ”I just don’t see that being the case, but again, that’s one person’s opinion.”

Texas public school coaches weigh in

The Star-Telegram interviewed a half-dozen current and former coaches at public and private schools, primarily in North Texas.

The less money schools have, the less money they have to put into athletics, the public school coaches said.

When that happens, it will upset communities, school districts, parents, coaches and student athletes, said Joe Martin, the executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association.

High school football is part of the fabric of Texas, he said.

“It’s part of who we are,” he said. “It’s celebrated in this state as being very successful and a lot of people like to follow it and like to have a piece of it and be a part of it.”

The group represents high school coaches, primarily in public schools, and opposes vouchers because they take money out of public schools, Martin said.

Buchanan, the former Aledo coach, predicted that athletics funding would be the first to go when it came time for districts to slash budgets because of loss of funds due to education savings accounts.

That could mean the loss of personnel — coaches who in most cases are also teachers. Buchanan, who retired at the end of the 2022 school year, is known for his 25 years as the Bearcats’ head coach, but was also a biology teacher. It could also mean less money for equipment like helmets and costs passed onto students through things like participation fees.

“There’s a lot of things that have to happen if your funding starts to drop,” he said, questioning how the state can afford to fund public schools while also paying for the voucher-like program.

“They’re not going to give public schools as much money, if they’re going to give kids money to go to private schools,” Buchanan said. “They can’t. Unless they do what: Charge us more taxes. Somebody’s got to pay for it.”

Arlington Martin Coach Chad Rives also opposed the idea of giving public dollars to private schools, as did longtime Midland football coach John Parchman.

Joseph Sam, the head coach at Arlington Bowie, expects to see some impact at the beginning, but thinks in the long term, the effects on high school football will be minimal.

There will be some impact in terms of taxpayer dollars going to private schools and the ability to fully fund sports. “Budget wise, there will have to be more fundraising to make sure you can fund, maybe, some of the costs of taxpayer money going to vouchers,” he said.

He doesn’t see many students opting to move into private schools. For one, tuition may not be affordable, even with the education savings account dollars, Sam said.

Some parents may want to make the jump because the option is new, he said.

“But I would put Texas public schools against any system in the country, personally, because outside of the COVID years, our success rate I think has been pretty high when it comes to servicing all students and not some students,” Sam said.

Fears that vouchers and like-programs could negatively affect high school football aren’t new.

In 2012, ahead of a possible voucher fight in the Texas Legislature, the Progress Texas PAC ran an ad featuring actors from the Texas-set television series “Friday Night Lights” warning of dangers to public school sports, according to the Texas Tribune. This year, the Moms Against Greg Abbott PAC has warned that vouchers could “turn off our Friday night lights.”

A spokesperson for Abbott pushed back against claims that education savings accounts would harm high school football in a Thursday statement. Abbott has also attended tailgates for private schools promoting his “school choice” plan.

“Critics of school choice are falsely claiming that school choice will hurt high school football,” Press Secretary Andrew Andrew Mahaleris said. “These are the same tired arguments that this vocal minority made 20 years ago in opposition to charter schools, and high school football in Texas today is better than ever.”

Would players move schools?

The Texas Private Schools Association doesn’t see education savings affecting the world of Texas high school football.

The vast majority of private schools are focused on academics and view athletics as an all-participatory activity, said Laura Colangelo, the organization’s executive director. Parents are paying tuition to have their children participate in as many activities as possible, including sports.

Many times, the football teams are not that good, she said. That’s not always the case — there are some teams that focus more on sports, but generally the focus is more holistic education, Colangelo said.

“I don’t see this affecting high school football in any way,” she said.

Private schools in Texas have cultivated some of the state’s top players — though the large majority come from public schools.

In North Texas, Parish Episcopal, Liberty Christian in Argyle and All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth have earned reputations as power players in high school football, be it private or public.

Some fear that the education savings accounts could be used as a recruiting tool of sorts to entice players to give football a go at a private school, where they may be able to get more field time.

“You’re not going to have as good as a team when you start losing some of your players to private schools,” Buchanan said.

He doesn’t have a problem making private teams better.

“I just want it on an even playing field,” he said. “I don’t want to be giving kids $10,000 scholarships to go to private school.”

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools bars recruiting students for sports.

A spokesperson for the UIL, which oversees high school sports in public schools, declined to comment because the organization does not comment on pending legislation. An interview request emailed to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools on Thursday was not immediately returned.

Novakov, the Parish Episcopal School coach, doesn’t predict a mass exodus of public school players to private schools. There are staffing and facility limitations affecting how many kids can attend, he said. Students would also need transportation to get to school. There are also admissions processes and standards that must be met academically.

Then there’s the cost of tuition, he said. Parish costs high school students more than $30,000 per year to attend. An education savings account, as currently proposed, would cover just a fraction of that.

The median private school tuition in Texas is $9,831, said Colangelo, with the Texas Private Schools Association.

Vouchers may help some parents access private education when coupled with financial aid, said Aaron Beck, the head coach at All Saints. But he too doubted that a large number of students would move to private schools for football.

There are limits to how many seats are available at private schools in Texas, and admissions will be looking for students who have a range of different talents, from academics to fine arts to sports, he said.

“They’re not going to look at it and go, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to take 15 football players,” Beck said.

Some cautioned that there could be schools that open focused primarily on football.

Parchman, who coached at Robert E. Lee High School in Midland, now named Legacy Senior High School, pointed to Prime Prep Academy, charter schools co-founded by Deion Sanders. The school, which had campuses in Dallas and Fort Worth, closed due to financial mismanagement, but was criticized for prioritizing athletics.

“That’s a big fear,” Parchman said.

Martin, with the Texas High School Coaches Association, sees the school financing having more of impact on football than the possibly of a student leaving a public school to go play at a private one.

In Texas, there aren’t that many private school players who are recruited at a high level because they aren’t playing against the bulk of competition.

Sam, the Arlington Bowie coach, put it this way: In Texas, the best football is played in public schools.

Game time in the Texas Legislature

Under the House proposal, public school, private school, and home-schooled students in kindergarten through 12th grade could apply for the $10,500 education savings account. Priority would be given to children with disabilities and those with a household income under a certain amount.

The funds could pay for private school tuition and fees, as well as other costs like tutors, textbooks and transportation.

The bill, House Bill 1, doesn’t solely focus on education savings accounts. Some of the other included measures deal with teacher pay raises, public school funding and school accountability.

The Senate has taken up education savings accounts and school funding, including teacher pay raises, in separate bills, which were approved by the chamber earlier in November.

House Speaker Dade Phelan declined to comment through a spokesperson. A request for comment emailed to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s office was not immediately returned.

If the House gives final approval to its bill, it would head back to the Senate for consideration. But lawmakers could also strip out or alter the education savings account measure or vote down the bill.

Abbott called the legislation, in its current form, an “extraordinarily effective bill,” during a recent news conference.

But if education savings accounts are removed, it could mean more overtime.

“We’d be spending December here, maybe January here, maybe February here,” Abbott said, according to the Texas Tribune. “And I know one thing about both the House and Senate: They want to get out of here.”