As Texas legislators have inched toward enacting an education voucher program this year, officials at The Woodlands Methodist School could sense excitement from families hoping to apply for a coveted spot. 

But the Montgomery County campus faces a challenge shared by private schools across Greater Houston: There’s not enough room to meet the demand. The Woodlands Methodist already has strong enrollment at about 250 students, with several grades completely full and only enough physical space to accommodate roughly 40 more students.

“I’ve had families come and tour with the anticipation that (legislation) might pass and then they would be wanting to come to our school,” said Rebecca Coates, director of admissions at The Woodlands Methodist School. “But you know, we have limited space. It would be difficult for us, and we would have to definitely expand to accommodate those students.”

Amid an ongoing ideological battle over state-funded vouchers that families could use for private school tuition and other education-related expenses, Houston-area campus administrators are warning about the practical realities that could blunt an influx of new students anytime soon. 

Local private school leaders say they’re already near capacity and aren’t planning large expansions in response to voucher legislation.

In interviews, several private school leaders said local students will be vying for a limited number of open seats if Texas legislators create a far-reaching voucher program during the ongoing special session addressing the topic. Gov. Greg Abbott and Republicans in the Texas Senate support a robust voucher system, while some moderate and rural GOP representatives in the Texas House are resisting the push.

While a voucher system could lead to long-term private school expansion, local and state leaders said they do not anticipate an immediate, rapid scale-up of facilities. Officials at several campuses — including Annunciation Orthodox School in Montrose, the Arbor School in Spring Branch and Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Sharpstown — confirmed they have no immediate plans to add capacity if voucher legislation is passed.

“For us, there wouldn’t be an influx in terms of quantity (of students),” Strake Jesuit Communications Director Dan Pepe said. “We’re kind of at the end of a growth period, and have built a new building recently to handle the growth that we’ve experienced.” 

The warnings about a limited short-term impact of a voucher program reflect the relatively small footprint of private schools in the eight-county Greater Houston area. 

Federal records show about 64,000 students attended private schools in the region in 2019-20, the most recent year with available data. By contrast, about 1.3 million students attended public schools that year.

Texas Private Schools Association officials said their surveys showed about 97,250 open seats across Texas as of fall 2022. The organization didn’t release regional data for Houston.

The Senate’s version of the voucher bill caps spending on the voucher program at $500 million over the next two years, which means about 30,000 students could benefit annually if every child received the maximum $8,000 payout set in the legislation. The House version limits voucher eligibility to 25,000 students in the 2024-25 school year, gradually increasing until all students are eligible by 2027.

The voucher fight

Voucher legislation has roiled the state for months, pitting public school advocates against school choice supporters. 

Voucher opponents have argued that taxpayer money shouldn’t go to private schools, which aren’t required to follow many state and federal education laws. In particular, voucher opponents fear children with special education needs will be overlooked by private schools, which are largely exempt from laws related to students with disabilities.

“It’s really undeniable that there would be sorting of kids, not only by ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled,’ but also by severity of disability,” said Andrea Chevalier, director of governmental relations at the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education. 

“I’ve seen some admission procedures from some private schools where they observe them in a classroom for 90 minutes. If the child can’t sit still because they have ADHD or they have a behavioral issue as a result of their disability … that is how the school could (reject them).”

Voucher proponents say the extra funding will help lower- and middle-income families afford private school tuition, giving them options enjoyed by wealthier families. 

“I talk to heads of school every day who have to turn away families who would really love for their child to go to their school and they simply can’t afford it,” said Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association.

The impact of a voucher program on public schools also hangs over the issue. When a child transfers from a public to private campus, the local school district loses funding generated by the student’s attendance.

Making room?

For now, some Houston-area private school leaders see minimal impact of a voucher program due to their capacity constraints.

Strake Jesuit, which enrolls about 1,200 high school boys, regularly receives twice the number of applications than it can accept, Pepe said. School leaders don’t plan to expand to accommodate more students, though they could choose to admit teens who are more “deeply committed” to Strake Jesuit’s Catholic values, Pepe said.

“I could imagine that news (of vouchers) would be a breath of fresh air to some,” Pepe said. “We don’t want someone who deeply wants what we offer in terms of personal formation to not be able to take part in it because of their financial situation.”

Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, said she expects it will take at least a few years to see a surge of students using vouchers. Her organization is a federation of Texas Roman Catholic dioceses and ordinariates, including the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which oversees about 60 local campuses.

Allmon expects that families will initially approach vouchers with some skepticism, though she anticipates increased interest as parents become more familiar with the program.

Colangelo predicted that “you’re not going to see schools pop up all over the place” if Texas lawmakers create a voucher program, describing potential private school growth as “a slow process.”

“We’d have to see how it plays out, how the program works,” Colangelo said. “It’s gonna take a while for this to get going.”

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Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A painfully Midwestern native to Michigan’s capital region, Miranda studied political science pre-law...