Back to mobile

Snake Oil

Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a sparsely attended committee hearing on school vouchers.
Sen. Dan Patrick at this morning's hearing on his school voucher bill, and the places where the rest of his Senate Education Committee should be.

A cardinal, a bishop and a rabbi walked into the Senate Education Committee this morning to talk lawmakers into passing a private-school voucher bill.

After last week’s decisive anti-voucher vote in the House, that might sound like the setup to a hilarious joke, but Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), the bill’s sponsor, was dead serious today. Calling his plan to divert business tax payments into private school scholarships a “noble cause,” he remained committed to private school choice as way to rescue poor children. He recognized that momentum isn’t on his side.

“I may go down fighting on this issue,” Patrick said, “but I will not apologize for trying to reach out and help families who are desperate for a future for their children that they didn’t have.”

Patrick looked awfully alone this morning as he laid out what, at one time, figured to be one of this session’s signature bills. Of the committee’s eight other members, only vice-chair Eddie Lucio Jr., Donna Campbell and Larry Taylor were there for most of the hearing, suggesting little interest in debating the finer points. Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), who’s not on the committee, sat in to carry the anti-voucher banner.

She and Patrick went back and forth over whether the tax credit program in Senate Bill 23—capped at a total of $100 million under a new version of the bill—would hurt public schools.

“It’s not public money coming out of public education, no matter how many times you say it,” Patrick told her.

“It’s not not,” Davis replied, “no matter how many times you say it.”

Davis pressed Patrick on the bill’s consequences for open records laws, school accountability or what the public might say about paying for schools with controversial principles. “What if the Nation of Islam wanted to open a parochial school in a community in the state of Texas and they wanted to be able to have access to this scholarship fund?” she wondered.

“Under this bill that would be allowed,” Patrick replied, “and I’m not going to play the religious game with you, senator.”

Had this been the religious game and not the politics game, Patrick could have fielded one heck of a team. Testifying this morning at his invitation: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Rabbi Eliezer Langer of Austin and Cornerstone Christian Schools Superintendent Jerry Echelin.

Rodriguez reminded lawmakers that the Catholic Church runs the country’s biggest private school network, with more than two million students. All the invited speakers were enthusiastic about the possibility of a major new revenue source. The unspoken subtext is that the rise of charter schools—another side of school choice movement—has been especially rough on Catholic schools.

None said they were concerned about being accountable and transparent, if that’s what it took to get the scholarships, though they stopped short of volunteering to give STAAR tests or submit to open records laws. “In itself,” DiNardo said, “accountability is always good. I don’t know what all the ins and outs would be in terms of accountability.”

Zurek recalled the Catholic Church’s proud history of openness and transparency. “We have never hidden any records,” he said, “in any diocese that I have been in.”

Fort Worth pastor Charles Johnson, with the Coalition for Public Schools and the Christian Life Commission, offered a dissenting view once testimony opened to the public. “We don’t refer to failing churches,” he said. There’s no such thing as a failing church. and I’m not so sure there’s such thing as a failing school.”

“How’s this not a tax loophole?” he wondered.

“I give money to my Baptist church,” Patrick answered. “I don’t consider that a loophole, I consider that an opportunity to support God.”

“Well, I’m not trying to speak on behalf of God,” Johnson said, “just the Baptists.”

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff also turned up to oppose the bill. “I’ll take a back seat to no one on providing choice to the students of this state,” he said—as a senator, he authored the 1995 bill creating Texas’ charter school system. “However, that choice was in the public arena.”

Ratliff suggested vouchers were, at best, a distraction from the more pressing problems with the margins tax created in 2006 that continues to underfund Texas’ public schools. Given the limited money Texas raises to support its schools, he wondered, “Why in the world would we take that public money and send it to private schools?”

Patrick allowed that the “mountain is very high” for his bill to pass, but waxed poetic about the sort of victory it might be: “We are great enough in this state to do these things, if we just knock down some barriers of people who are against opportunities and competition and choice because they’ve always been.”

Patrick was framed by empty seats on his committee as he spoke, his barriers as absent as his support.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) defends his anti-voucher amendment in the Texas House.

House Speaker Joe Straus has made it clear that his chamber won’t be passing any school voucher bills this session.

But just to be sure, Rep. Abel Herrero figured he’d seal the deal. He attached an amendment to the budget this afternoon guaranteeing Texas can’t spend public money on private schools.

As Herrero took the mic to explain his amendment, there wasn’t much to suggest it would start one of the day’s biggest fights. This was a simple proposal, Herrero said: “You cannot direct public funds for the use of school vouchers.”

Rep. John Otto, who was controlling the debate on education spending from the front mic, said he wouldn’t take a position on this one. “Vote your district,” he told lawmakers.

The meaning soon began to sink in. Power-walking back to his desk, Rep. Kenneth Sheets summed up what many Republicans were probably thinking at that moment: “I hate this amendment,” he said to no one in particular.

The Senate’s new education committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston) has promised his chamber would be friendly to vouchers this session, just one piece of his ambitious school choice agenda.

In the House, though, the dynamic seems about the same as it was in 2007, when school vouchers were last seriously debated, and shot down by a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans. Neither Straus nor any other House leader has suggested voucher proposals would get too far the Lower Chamber. They may not even get a floor vote.

So Herrero’s amendment this afternoon was a rare opportunity to let pro-voucher conservatives let their tea party flags fly—and make some other Republicans squirm a little. Caught between their hometown school community on one side, and conservative purity tests on the other, voting either way was a lose-lose for some Republicans.

Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco) with other voucher advocates
Patrick Michels
Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco) and other voucher advocates line up against Herrero’s amendment.

A huddle of hard-line conservatives gathered around the back microphone, pressing Herrero on his amendment. One member called his amendment “a back-door way of cutting off school choice.” Herrero assured the House only vouchers—not charter schools or transfers between districts—would be barred.

After Herrero said he sends his own children to private schools, Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) told him she was “surprised” that he didn’t want low-income students to get the same opportunities his kids would have.

Freshman Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco) took his turn next. “If the focus is the children,” he said, and not “the institution of education,” Turner said the right thing to do is let parents choose a private school for their kids. He asked Herrero how the Democrat would propose to help “children trapped in failing school.” Better funding for their schools, Herrero suggested.

“What we’re doing now is not working,” Turner said, raising his voice. “Even if we fully fund it, it’s not going to bring us the results that we want.”

As time ran out for the debate, lawmakers began hollering for a vote—and it wasn’t even close. Herrero’s amendment passed by a 103-43 margin, a cold splash of reality for tea party Republicans and other voucher-backers. The vote seemed to kill vouchers this session. The only faint hope for voucher supporters is that Dan Patrick might deliver them a miracle.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) introduces his big testing and graduation reform measure, House Bill 5, Tuesday morning.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Texas House is still hard at work debating Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock’s epic education bill, HB 5, which would retool Texas’ high school graduation requirements along with its testing and accountability systems.

But after a lengthy midday debate, lawmakers may have settled the most divisive question facing them today: should high school students should, by default, be placed on a pathway to college preparation? House members shot down that proposal by a two-to-one margin, signaling that they wanted a break from the college-prep focus in Texas high schools today.

Currently, Texas has a three-tiered path to graduation in which students are automatically placed on a path for college readiness, but kids who graduate with the minimum degree aren’t eligible for a four-year university. Aycock’s bill would flatten the degree options, so any Texas high school diploma would be good enough for a student to attend college.

Higher education leaders, minority student advocates and major businesses have worried Aycock’s bill would leave students less prepared for college, because it requires fewer courses commonly seen as signs of college readiness, especially algebra II.

An amendment by Reps. Mark Strama (D-Austin) and Dan Branch (R-Dallas) would have maintained a preference in the system for college readiness, suggesting students would default to a “distinguished” diploma path, which requires four years of math and science.

Under an amendment tacked onto HB 5 earlier in the day, students would need a parent’s signature to change their endorsement choice—and Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) focused on that scenario when he spoke up against Strama’s proposal. Deshotel asked lawmakers to consider how hard it could be for a student to tell their parents, “I can’t hack this, I have to drop down to a lower level.”

“If they don’t want to go to college, they shouldn’t have to get a permission slip signed by their parents if they want to do something else with their lives,” he said.

A long debate followed with a handful of lawmakers on either side, split not by party or urban-rural lines, but by disagreements over how to encourage students to attend college without creating a daunting system that leads to more dropouts.

Houston Democrat Sylvester Turner spoke up in favor of Strama’s amendment. “Let’s just be real,” he said. “If you set a low bar, many of our kids whether we like it or not are going to go for the low bar.”

Strama noted that under Texas’ current 4-by-4 program—which encourages all students to take four years of math, science, English and social studies—minority students are choosing the college-ready path at the same rate as white students.

Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson said that’s why he supported Strama’s proposal. “I have a problem with the idea of taking a regime where we’ve seen African-American, Latino college participation rates going up … and undoing that,” he said. “I’d like to see them start in the pipeline. Put every child in the college pipeline initially and let them opt out.”

“This cuts to the chase almost to HB5′s premise. This is the big one here,” said Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock), who joined Deshotel’s opposition. “How do you think Rep. Strama’s amendment differs from the status quo? It doesn’t change the status quo … what we have now isn’t working.”

Aycock finally stood to speak against Strama’s proposal. He said he was well aware of concerns about tracking minority students out of college, but his goal is to give students and parents control over what they learn in high school.

“I do not believe we should have an upper track, I do not believe we should have a lower track,” he said. “If you want to create a pathway to failure, if you want to create a track, we have two right now. One is called ‘minimum plan,’ the other is called dropouts.”

With House members  yelling for a vote, Strama gave one last defense of his plan. Only students who graduate “distinguished” are eligible for automatic entry to a state university under Texas’ Top 10 Percent rule, he said, so there is, in fact, an upper track under HB 5. “I don’t think we can argue that there’s not a difference in the pathways,” Strama said. “So the question becomes, what should be the presumptive expectation of children wehn they enter high school?”

Strama’s amendment went down 97 to 50. A diverse, bipartisan group supported Strama and Branch’s doomed proposal: Latino and African-American lawmakers mostly, but also such polar opposites as Fort Worth Democrat Lon Burnam and Tomball Republican Debbie Riddle.

We’ll have more later as the HB 5 debate continues.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings speaks at the anti-domestic violence rally Saturday.
Patrick Michels
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings speaks at the anti-domestic violence rally Saturday.

dallas-domestic-violence-rally

Photos from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings' rally to end domestic violence.
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_011

    Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings invited men to join in his rally against domestic violence, to help end the attitude that family violence is a women's issue. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_100

    The crowd in front of Dallas City Hall Saturday was almost entirely men. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_064

    Dallas Cowboys greats Emmitt Smith and Roger Staubach joined in a conversation about men's roles in building a culture that doesn't tolerate domestic violence. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_111

    The crowd in front of Dallas City Hall Saturday was almost entirely men. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_085

    State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) emceed the rally. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_023

    Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway, right, encouraged men to teach their sons domestic violence is wrong. Given a big stage, Caraway couldn't resist plugging a favorite cause of his own too, telling kids to pull their pants up. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_041

    A crowd of supporters from Mary Kay cosmetics waves after one of the company's officers gave his speech. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130323_Michels_DomesticViolenceRally_113

    The crowd in front of Dallas City Hall Saturday was almost entirely men. (Patrick Michels)

In Dallas last year, 26 women were killed by their intimate partners, up from 10 the year before. The death of Karen Cox Smith—whose husband has confessed to shooting her in a parking lot in January—has become a rallying point for those hoping to reverse the trend. Mayor Mike Rawlings is a big part of that effort, becoming a high-profile advocate against domestic violence in the last few months, and urging Dallas men to speak up and take responsibility. Saturday, thousands of men joined Rawlings outside Dallas City Hall for a rally to end the city’s culture of domestic violence, joined by major figures in the city’s business, sports and faith communities.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia emceed the event, and Sen. Royce West and Rep. Jason Villalba joined him onstage at one point. Villalba had a message for domestic abusers: “They’re cockroaches, and Texas is gonna come after ‘em.”

You can read more about the rally from the Dallas Morning News and WFAA. The Dallas Observer‘s telling includes West’s messy connection, in his private practice, to the day’s big would-be redemption case, the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant. RH Reality Check parses the conflicting, at times counterproductive, messages from the stage Saturday, but says the main “message—putting the blame for domestic violence squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators, not the victims—came across loud and clear.”

Piers Morgan and Dan Patrick
Dan Patrick talks guns with Piers Morgan earlier this year.

In the first days of the legislative session, within a month of the mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst floated the idea of state-funded specialized gun training for teachers.

“Eight hours of instruction and two hours on the range is not sufficient,” he said at the time.

Today in the Senate Education Committee, lawmakers got a look at a bill to set Dewhurst’s troubled mind at ease, from Houston Republican Dan Patrick. The bill wouldn’t necessarily mean more teachers carrying guns in classrooms. (A House bill by freshman Dallas Republican Jason Villalba would handle that; another by James White would create a gun class for kids.)

Since Sandy Hook, a handful of Texas school districts have added policies letting some teachers carry guns—Patrick’s bill is meant to make that decision safer, so heat-packing teachers know what they’re getting into.

“If anybody other than police are carrying firearms,” Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) said today, “and they do not have that scenario-based training, the school district is negligent.”

Under Patrick’s proposal, the Texas Department of Safety would develop a new gun skills class for protecting children when a shooter is on the loose. DPS would offer the class free to two teachers from any school that doesn’t have full-time security or police of its own.

There’s no course quite like that already, but DPS Director Steve McCraw was on hand to detail what it might look like: 16 hours of training, he said, in “being proactive defending the kids” and letting police know, when they finally arrive, that you’re not the shooter they should be worried about. Texas would be the first state to develop such a class, but McCraw said that what DPS has in mind isn’t some John Woo fantasy camp.

McCraw said DPS would develop a course with a “stand and defend” approach, not “active shooter training” on how to go after a gunman. It’d be “consistent with” training plans developed by Texas State University’s School Safety Center, he said.

Senators’ biggest sticking point this afternoon was the price tag—$9.3 million over the next two years, according to the estimate in the fiscal note. Patrick, and other senators, said that estimate is probably way off-base because it assumes teachers from all 8,500 schools in the state would take the class. There are 180 districts with their own police forces, for instance, that wouldn’t even be eligible for the free training.

Seliger, though, said the price tag was “probably pretty close.” Fewer teachers might go for the training, but the class McCraw suggested would be twice as long as the fiscal note’s estimate. Seliger said he’s taken similar classes, and they’re expensive.

“This will not be done on the cheap, with civilians expected to participate in an armed scenario in a public school. I’m not opposed to it, but I don’t think we ought to be misleading anybody in terms of the rigor of the course.”

Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, had a more basic concern. Next to all the state’s other duties to pay for education—from teacher pay to test prep for struggling students—West wondered about spending millions on this new continuing education for teachers. “What’s more important?” he asked.

“Saving the life of a child, if there’s a shooter in the school with an assault weapon, is more important,” Patrick shot back.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) said he planned to offer an amendment to the bill, which would require the state to pay for the training “only if sufficient funds are available.”

“This amendment will potentially gut the bill,” Patrick said. He seemed to wonder, after all the favors he’d done as committee chair, what he’d done to deserve such a stab in the back.

“I’ve been very supportive of members on this committee, Senator Lucio, on programs that you have wanted. And if I had known that the decision was going to come down to a million or two for some programs that you wanted me to support—which i did—over protecting our students from a shooter…”

With Lucio and West interrupting him, Patrick trailed off. He left the bill pending in his committee, without any resolution on the bill’s price tag.

Tony Diaz and other 'Librotraficante' supporters
Patrick Michels
'Librotraficante' founder Tony Diaz at the Capitol Thursday.

A year ago, Houston-based writer Tony Diaz led the Librotraficante bus tour to Tucson, “smuggling” books back into a state that had just effectively banned Mexican-American studies classes in public schools.

This morning Diaz was on a similar mission, but much closer to home—outside the third-floor Capitol office of Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, who filed a proposal last week to only count “comprehensive survey” courses toward undergraduate history requirements. Students interested in Latino, African-American, LGBT or women’s history, for instance, wouldn’t be able to count those classes against the requirement.

Those implications weren’t lost on the crowd of university students and activists waiting around to speak with Patrick’s staff—just days, coincidentally, after a federal judge upheld Arizona’s law. “It’s the same target group, except it’s a different approach” under Patrick’s bill, Diaz explained. “It seems like Senator Patrick is auditioning to be the next Jan Brewer.”

Patrick’s bill (and a House companion by Southlake freshman Rep. Giovanni Capriglione) are the legislative response to a recent report from the New York-based National Association of Scholarspromoted by Austin’s own Texas Public Policy Foundation—claiming that the University of Texas and Texas A&M over-emphasize niche history courses at the expense of American and Western tradition. While the report may have come from New York, our own Bill Minutaglio noted another local connection: it was funded in part by D magazine publisher Wick Allison.

The report, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class and Gender Dominating American History?” answers that question for readers after just two paragraphs. In a neat trick, its list of recommendations closes with, “10. Depoliticize history.”

High time these academics quit thinking about history and just start teaching it. Surely there’s a dominant historical narrative to keep us all happy enough.

“There is an agenda to remove dozens of books out of the curriculum at a time,” Diaz said this morning. “In a global economy, why would you want to build a border wall around American history?”

The bills have been referred to higher education committees in their respective chambers; neither has been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Bishop Oscar Cantu, State Sen. Dan Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), center, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in December.

Update at 3:05 p.m.: Patrick has teamed up with Sen. Ken Paxton to co-author another bill filed Friday, which is exactly the same as the bill described here.

Looks like Dan Patrick wasn’t ready to let his fellow senators—like Tommy Williams, Ken Paxton and Eddie Lucio Jr.—grab all the headlines about voucher proposals.

Just ahead of today’s bill filing deadline, Patrick submitted a proposal on Thursday creating what he calls the Texas Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program. His SB 1410 would create the largest voucher program of any bill filed this session, offering private school vouchers for at-risk and low-income students, with a priority for kids in low-rated schools.

Businesses could take up to 15 percent of what they’d pay in franchise taxes, and donate it to the new scholarship fund instead. Patrick’s bill also offers a tax credit against the premium tax insurance companies pay the state.

Unlike a bill filed Monday by Sen. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney), Patrick’s bill only gives priority to students in low-scoring schools—if there’s enough scholarship money left, any low-income or at-risk student could get public money to spend on private school tuition. The bill’s family income cutoff is twice the federal free and reduced lunch program limit—about $71,000 for a household of three.

The vouchers would be worth up to 80 percent of the state’s average per-student spending. Patrick’s bill also doesn’t cap the size of his new scholarship program at a total dollar amount, as Paxton’s does.

Private schools that accept the scholarships could be religious and would have broad leeway in what they teach—under Louisiana’s voucher program, some private schools made great use of that freedom. Under Patrick’s bill, participating private schools would only have to give an annual test—either STAAR or a norm-referenced test like the Iowa Basic Skills Test.

The new scholarships could also cover pre-kindergarten or up to $1,000 for an afterschool program.

Before the start of the session, Patrick was enthusiastic about using public money to cover private school tuition—an idea that’s long been a tough sell in Texas. Voucher critics lined up to fight any proposal, including a “business tax credit,” that would spend public money on private school tuition, but in the last few months the “school choice” debate has focused on charter school expansion instead.

Voucher fever has caught on this week in the Senate, though, with a hearing on Sen. Tommy Williams’ (R-The Woodlands) voucher proposal for special needs students, and the filing of Paxton and Patrick’s voucher bills. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recently reiterated his commitment to passing a voucher bill out of the Senate this session—even if the proposals stop there. House education leaders like Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) and Public Education chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) still sound unmoved by the Senate’s enthusiasm.

The text of Patrick’s bill is below. I’ve highlighted some important sections, and you can click on those for more detailed notes. (Here’s a link to the annotated bill, too.)

Update at 2:12 p.m.: Along with SB 23, which Patrick and Paxton have co-authored, Paxton and New Braunfels Republican Sen. Donna Campbell also have another voucher bill, SB 1575, just filed Friday. Freshman Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco) has filed the first voucher bill in the House.

Eddie-Lucio-Jr-double
Onetime business-tax-credit proponent Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville), left, and private school voucher skeptic Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville).

State Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) sat before the Senate Education Committee this morning pitching his proposal to give state-funded grants to parents of children with special needs, to cover private school tuition.

It’s a common approach for opening the door to school voucher programs—a favorite of free-market school reformers—and Brownsville Democrat Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. made it clear he has some concerns.

Private schools aren’t subject to the same class size limits as public schools, he noted, so a student might actually be worse off in private school. Private schools don’t need to offer transportation to their students, either—only parents with the time and means to drive their kids to school could use the scholarship. And what if the private school tuition costs more than the state grant? What about low-income parents who can’t afford to pay the difference?

“I would be willing to do anything to help them turn their little lives around,” Lucio said, “but I want to make sure that we’re not going to strap them economically either.”

These are longstanding concerns about school voucher programs, and Lucio sounded genuinely concerned. And he would have sounded even more genuine if he hadn’t told a newspaper—just last week—he was interested in filing a bill to create a state-funded private school scholarship program.

It’s a confusing contradiction… Or is it?

Later this morning, the Houston Press quoted Lucio’s general counsel, Daniel Collins, who said their office never planned on filing a voucher bill—and cast doubt on Rio Grande Guardian reporter Steve Taylor’s story. “I wasn’t there for that conversation, so I don’t know if he misquoted [Lucio],” Collins said.

In fact, the business-tax-credit-totally-not-vouchers bill had already been filed Monday, by McKinney Republican Ken Paxton. So ends the great mystery, begun in a little Catholic schoolroom last December, of who would carry Sen. Dan Patrick’s voucher bill.

That leaves two school voucher proposals—defined as programs that would divert public money to private school tuition—floating around the Senate today. Here are more details on the pair:

Paxton’s Senate Bill 1015 would let companies steer up to 75 percent of what they owe in state taxes to a nonprofit that, in turn, awards private school scholarships for students. Only low-income students, in schools rated “unacceptable” the previous year, would be eligible for the scholarships. Those nonprofits awarding the scholarships can’t spend “100 percent” of their scholarship awards at one school—though they could presumably spend 99 percent at a given school.

Williams’ SB 115, discussed this morning in the Senate Education Committee, would provide a voucher for parents of children in special education programs, with its value tied to the special education funding the school district would receive from the state. Texas Education Agency General Counsel David Anderson told lawmakers this morning it’s hard to estimate just what that would be worth, because the state’s funding varies widely depending on a student’s disability.

The bills represent just the latest chapter in a decades-long school choice soap opera—either one would represent a milestone in Texas, though House Speaker Joe Straus has already warned his chamber isn’t likely to support any voucher plan.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.
Voucher? Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. hardly even knows 'er.

Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) has been telling us to expect a school voucher bill since last summer. Since December, he’s been floating the idea as a “business tax credit scholarship“—letting companies divert money they’d pay in business taxes to a private school scholarship fund instead.

School groups lined up to fight the proposal. Some Republican leaders noted their distate for vouchers, too, and Paul Burka declared the scheme as good as dead. And still no voucher bill.

But Wednesday, from the Rio Grande Guardian, came word that a voucher “pilot program” could be introduced by—wait for it—Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. He just doesn’t want to call it “vouchers.” He told reporter Steve Taylor, at least twice, not to call it that:

The other bill would allow academically under-achieving students to leave their public school and received an education in a private school. A combination of taxpayer and private funding would help pay for their education but Lucio is keen to stress that the state funds would not come from the public education budget.

“The question is whether we are going to make a difference for those in need and those who are falling through the cracks. That is what my bills are really all about. It is not about taking away from public education funding. It is not about vouchers. It is more about helping a category of students who have fallen on hard times, who are disadvantaged economically and who need our help to make it through the system,” Lucio said.

[...]

“This will not be considered a voucher system. It will be set up in such a way that we do not use public education money. I do not want to see us being divided on this issue. It is just like feeding needy children, we do not really care where the money comes from. We just need to feed our children. It is the same thing with education.”

Lucio hasn’t filed a bill yet, but the plan as he describes it would be a lot like the business tax credits Patrick proposed last December. The Guardian explains that Lucio wants “a combination of taxpayer and private funding” for the program, which he figures would cost from $50 million to $100 million per biennium and pay for 10,000 to 20,000 students to attend private school.

“It’s still a voucher, because you’re still talking about diverting a funding stream out of [general revenue] that could have gone to funding public education,” says Monte Exter with the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Exter notes that Lucio would go one step further than Patrick suggested last year, because his plan seems to include state spending up-front. It would take time, he says, to raise the tax credit money, so the state might have to start off paying for private tuition.

“What they’re doing is they’re creating a middle man, so instead of the state providing the money, they launder it through these tax credits,” says Texas Freedom Network spokesman Dan Quinn. “If you want to donate to send kids to a private school, you’re welcome to do that today. Getting a tax credit from the state makes it a publicly funded voucher program.”

If Lucio does introduce a tax credit program, Quinn figures he’d be the only Democrat backing it. “It’s a talking point more than it is a political advantage,” he says.

As in voucher fights past, Democrats and rural Republicans are still likely to oppose it. The vast majority of Texas’ public school districts don’t have any private schools in their boundaries that students could transfer to.

For what it’s worth, Lucio’s district has 27 private schools, according to the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission. All but three are Christian schools, and half are branches of St. Mary’s School in Brownsville.

John Whitmire, Dan Patrick and Royce West
It wasn't all smiles this morning when Dan Patrick (R-Houston) got caught between John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Royce West (D-Dallas)

The Senate Finance Committee approved an extra $1.5 billion for public schools this morning, adding $1.375 million to formula funding and millions more for other education programs.

Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said the new amount would mean “no net revenue losses for any school district for 2014.” The Senate’s budget now also includes $14 million for the Student Success Initiative—a starved state program for helping at-risk students pass state tests—$40 million more for pre-kindergarten, plus millions more for Teach for America and the Texas Virtual School Network. The Austin American-Statesman‘s Kate Alexander has more.

The committee left just one piece of the education budget in limbo: funding for a new charter school authorizer that would be created under Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2—a seven-member appointed board to oversee the state’s charter schools.

It was a telling diversion in an otherwise agreeable budget meeting to watch a pair of Democratic senators try to make Patrick, the usually tight-fisted tea party favorite, defend the extra cost of his school reform plans.

Dallas Democrat Royce West began by saying he wasn’t convinced Texas should create a separate board for authorizing charter schools. That’s already the State Board of Education’s job, West said. He worried about putting charter school approvals in the hands of an unelected board and questioned how they’d be held accountable.

The move clearly irritated Patrick, who said he wished West had told him about his reservations sooner. (West said he already voted against it once in their workgroup, which should have been sufficient notice.) Members of the charter school authorizing board, Patrick said, would probably need Senate confirmation, and might answer to the State Board of Education—though those details aren’t final yet.

SB 2 is still pending in Patrick’s education committee after a hearing last week. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated Patrick’s bill would carry other huge costs to the state, growing every year—from $24 million in 2014, up to $55 million in 2018. Those costs include students coming from private or home-schooling into a charter school, new funding for charter school buildings, and state employees to oversee all the new schools.

Today’s argument focused on what the new Charter School Authorizing Authority would cost.

“Why would we turn to more government as a solution?” Houston Democrat John Whitmire asked Patrick. “Because I know that’s not your philosophy; I do listen to you closely.”

“Instead of fixing the agency that is in charge of this responsibility, you want to turn and create a new bureaucracy, more state employees, and I promise you this [charter school authorizer] budget will not remain where it is,” Whitmire said.

“I will bet you, whoever evaluates us,” Whitmire said, “this will be a measurement by the folks that advocate less government, that we’re creating another governmental entity. It is what it is.”

“Sir, this isn’t expanding government,” Patrick said, before explaining why this particular expansion is so important. As it is, the SBOE approves four or five charters a year, he said, but if Texas removes its cap on charters, the SBOE and the Texas Education Agency can’t handle scaling up to “15 or 25 or 35 a year.”

“The truth is, you know, sometimes we have to do the right thing. And if people on the outside don’t agree, they don’t agree,” Patrick said. “We’re gonna give poor children in this state who have no hope for a quality education an opportunity to learn.”

1 7 8 9 10 11 18