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Gov. Rick Perry signs House Bill 5
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry signs House Bill 5 Monday at the Capitol, surrounded by, from left, Sen. Donna Campbell, Sen. Dan Patrick, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Lawmakers, test reform advocates and reporters packed the governor’s reception room at the Capitol earlier today, where Gov. Rick Perry was scheduled to “give remarks and sign education bills,” per a press release sent Friday.

His office didn’t announce just which “education bills” he planned to sign, and his announcement came after a week of speculation that Perry planned to veto House Bill 5, the session’s most sweeping measure to scale back high school testing.

The Quorum Report cited “sources generally close to the Governor’s office” on Wednesday raising the possibility of a veto, and a few more reporters cited that report (and “growing chatter in the Capitol“) in their own stories on veto speculation. Dallas Morning News education columnist Bill McKenzie mused on how Perry could veto three test reform measures, including HB 5, without hurting his career.

Some business leaders worried that cutting testing, and giving students new graduation requirements focused on career—not college—readiness, meant offering a weaker education. But a veto would have been profoundly unpopular among parents and students who’ve demanded fewer tests.

The bill’s author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock tweeted Thursday that he’d been invited to the signing, but not told why. But with Aycock summoned along with parents and students who’d spent dozens of hours this session complaining to lawmakers about Texas’ 15 required high school tests, there didn’t seem much suspense. Either Perry was going to sign the bill, or he’d arranged the sort of particularly cruel veto ceremony the rulers in Game of Thrones might appreciate. (Spoiler alert.)

He put the speculation to rest early in his remarks, naming HB 5 among the six bills he’d sign, saying they strike “an appropriate balance between our need for rigorous academic standards and the student’s need for flexibility, a balance between our needs for accountability and the appropriate level of testing in the classroom.”

Perry allowed that he had “deep concerns about how [HB5] would impact our students” at first, but was satisfied with the final version. “By standing our ground and not compromising on the high standards that we set for our students, we’ve made this a much better bill.” That’s as much as Perry hinted that he’d been on the fence, and he emphasized that HB 5 doesn’t weaken standards. “Texas refuses to dilute our standards in any way,” he said, “because our standards are working.”

Seated at a table in the middle of the crowd, Perry made great drama of the big moment. “Brother Aycock, brother Patrick,” he said, summoning the bill’s author and its Senate sponsor, Houston Republican Dan Patrick. “Got a low-number bill right here.” Parents in the back of the room let out hoots and shouts of joy as he signed the bill.

Perry also signed House Bills 809, 842, 2201 and 3662, and Senate Bill 441 today—bills that, generally speaking, create new technical courses and career programs in schools.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams was among a handful of other officials who took a turn at the mic, and he hinted at the monster task now facing the state education agency to implement the new bills. Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes had a similar take, noting universities will need more counselors now, to help students bridge the gap between their new high school course requirements and their major in college.

HB 5 isn’t the last of the test-reform measures left for Perry to sign, and he’s got just six days left to do so. Bills that could give high-scoring students a pass from some tests in elementary school, or exempt a handful of “high performance” school districts, are still in limbo, though if Perry takes no action, those bills become law. When the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith asked the governor about some of those other testing bills today, Perry said only what his office had been saying about HB 5 before today: he’s still thinking on it.

“We will notify you at the appropriate time,” Perry said. “I just don’t have the final solution yet.”

The session’s two biggest school reform bills, one from each chamber, have danced around the House and Senate in the session’s closing days—a stalemate that broke Sunday night as both bills passed each chamber around the same time.

Members of the lower chamber began with their own House Bill 5, which reduces the required high school tests from 15 to 5, creates a new set of graduation plans for high schoolers, and lets the state rate its schools on an “A to F” scale. The final version of the bill is closer to the House’s proposal than the one passed by the Senate.

Its author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) urged a quick finish for one of the session’s centerpiece bills, and one that saw hours of debate on the House floor in March. “Let’s just vote it,” he said tonight.

Rep. Mark Strama—who voted against HB 5 when it passed the House—spoke in favor of the bill this time, devoting his final speech on the House floor to the proper role of testing in education policy. (He’s announced he won’t seek reelection.)

“HB 5 is an improvement over current law,” Strama said, but he defended the standardized testing movement of the last 20 years, crediting it with helping African-American and Hispanic students to close the “achievement gap” with Anglo students. “The problem with testing in Texas was the stakes we had attached to those tests,” he said.

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he’d vote for the bill too, despite his concern that that it doesn’t go far enough to help “the kids that are going to be on the bottom, I don’t care which test you give. … If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 2, which would let the state approve around 100 new charter school operators in the next six years, had a less certain fate in the House, where charter expansion bills have died in the last two sessions.

In addition to the new charters, SB 2 moves some authority over the charter application process from the State Board of Education to the education commissioner; makes it easier to close low-performing charters; and allows school boards to turn low-performing campuses into charters.

Debate was quick, with the most critical questions from Fort Worth-area Democrats Lon Burnam and Chris Turner.

Burnam grilled Aycock, the bill’s House sponsor, on the exemptions from class size limits and disciplinary program requirements that in-district charter schools would get. Turner noted it would take just one year of low performance before a campus could be turned to an in-district charter.

That bill passed 105 to 41, with no votes from a handful of Republicans along with Democrats. The Senate passed SB 2 without debate, on a 28-3 vote.

The Senate wrapped up the night’s major school bills, taking up HB 5 just after 10 p.m. and approving it unanimously after a speech by Senate Education Chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston). Patrick said he wore his wedding tie tonight, one of the few times he’s ever put it on, because tonight was such a special night.

“It’s a great night for the future of students [and] parents,” he said, before senators voted for the bill and took turns hugging him beside his desk.
CSCOPE-blue

An emotional and incredibly strange war waged over the last two years—in community halls and small-town diners, conference calls and YouTubes, Fox News broadcasts and legislative hearings—concluded this morning as Sen. Dan Patrick announced that “the era of CSCOPE lesson plans has come to an end.”

And so begins the time for Tea Party and anti-CSCOPE activists to take a victory lap, or, if you’re one of the thousands of teachers that used CSCOPE’s lessons in your classroom, the time to start printing off and photocopying those handouts before they disappear forever.

“The big lesson here is that if you can generate a witch hunt that includes enough incendiary and distorted claims, then there are politicians at the Capitol who are ready to throw their supposed commitment to local control out the window,” said Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller in a statement this morning.

The curriculum management program, run cooperatively by the state’s 20 regional Education Service Centers, will still be available for the hundreds of school districts that use it to help teachers cover all the state standards, or TEKS. But the handouts and sample lessons that prompted charges of Marxist, progressive, liberal, socialist, globalist, environmentalist, anti-American, anti-ChristianMuslim, Mexican indoctrination will be gone by August 31.

It all ended with a 72-hour blitz of meetings at the Capitol and a letter late last night, “signed by all 20 members of the CSCOPE board,” Patrick said. CSCOPE administrators had turned over thousands of financial documents to Patrick’s office last week.

“It couldn’t be a more exciting day for us on the education committee,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels). “We identified something that was shrouded in secrecy, that affected education for our children, made it difficult for parents to find out what was being taught to our children, and we now have that issue resolved.”

Kyle Wargo, executive director of Amarillo’s Region 17 service center and a CSCOPE board member, got the privilege of speaking for the defeated. “I’m certainly very excited,” he said, which is understandable given what a punching bag regional service centers have become over the last six months.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s in the best interests of the school districts, it’s in the best interest of the children.” Wargo said. Writing lessons for schools across Teas just isn’t practical, considering how much diversity of thought there is across a state Texas’ size. “We’ve learned one thing,” he said. “Lesson plans have a lot of subjectivity to them.”

“This is a great example of what happens when moms and dads across the state of Texas come together and get involved in their children’s education,” said Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands). “Everything that happened has happened here as a result of all their hard work, tireless efforts, blogging, Facebook messages, Twitter messages, email, press conferences, traveling tireless hours across the state to raise awareness about this program.”

Toth will pull his CSCOPE accountability bill in response to today’s news, and Patrick said the State Board of Education would also shelve its review of CSCOPE history lessons.

Patrick said he hoped big school districts would step in to help small districts replace the lesson plans they’d been getting from CSCOPE before—a practical solution, but also the sort of regional partnership that created CSCOPE in the first place. Failing that, he said, of course there’s always the private sector: “There are many vendors that, I’m sure, will try to fill this vacuum starting next year.”

Devo
Want to know why Devo really broke up?

We featured Rep. Matt Krause’s House Bill 360 back in February as a “bad bill,” because it would let student groups discriminate among its membership, kicking out students who don’t fall in line with the principles the group was founded on. It’s especially easy to imagine groups kicking out gay members in the name of their founding principles.

Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, put it simply: “It’s not legitimate to use public funds for discriminatory conduct.”

But the Fort Worth Republican said it’s a free speech guarantee, a protection against “subversive” members hoping to hijack a group. He offered what seemed like a hilarious off-hand example at the time: the Red Hat Society, a ladies’ social organization promoting fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment and fitness. And wearing red hats, probably. “You would exclude the blue hats,” Krause explained.

His bill died at last week’s deadline, but he brought it back today as an amendment to the Higher Education Coordinating Board’s sunset bill. With it, he also resuscitated his old analogy.

“Let’s say there’s a red hat club,” Krause suggested on the House floor today. “Anybody who wants to come in and subvert that, ‘I don’t like red hats’,” well, he suggested they just start their own club.

“Are we opening this up to the Ku Klux Klan?” Krause asked rhetorically. “A school is not going to allow the Ku Klux Klan,” he said answering his own question.

“It doesn’t apply to race, it doesn’t apply to gender, it doesn’t apply to sexual orientation. It only applies to those which would seek to purposefully come in and subvert and undermine the purpose for which the club was in the first place.”

Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson tweeted that it was a “mean-spirited amendment,” and the Texas Freedom Network and LGBT groups were working all day to rally opposition to Krause’s amendment, which had been pre-filed.

Krause’s original bill is exactly the sort of ultra-contentious legislation that’s been kept off the House floor so far this session. Lawmakers have even been pulling down many amendments that might spark bitter partisan battles.

But in a lengthy debate over the amendment, nobody challenged Krause on its implications for gay students, or students of a particular race who could be excluded from a club. Opponents mostly played along with his vague “red hat” scenario—Rep. Senfronia Thompson did suggest replacing it with “The Islamic Club”—and worried it was simply impractical.

Krause batted away suggestions that his plan would run afoul of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that discrimination in student groups is unconstitutional. He sidestepped the suggestion that his bill would take away local control, or that kicking students out of clubs would create needless paperwork for universities.

Rep. Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso) did press him about what his bill would mean in the long term. “Things change. They evolve,” she said. “The mission changes, sometimes the demographics change. What you’re saying here is that you have to keep these parameters in place for these clubs.”

“Let’s go back to the red hat club,” Krause suggested. “Let’s say everybody want to wear a red hat so it’s a big club. All of a sudden everybody wants to wear a yellow hat. Eventually it’ll atrophy, it’ll get smaller and it’ll be nonexistent.”

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) suggested an alternate possibility: “I think the red hats ought to accept the blue hats, and the blue hat doesn’t look blue to me cause it’s now purple.”

The majority of House members disagreed, passing Krause’s amendment 78-67. The bill passed minutes later. Whether Krause’s plan sticks is up to a few House and Senate members who’ll take on the bill in conference committee next.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston)
Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) and his adding machine.

With more money to play with this session, lawmakers in both chambers have already approved sending more dollars to public schools and women’s health providers. On Tuesday, House members tried to make sure businesses get theirs too.

House Bill 500, which passed this evening, would effectively hand back $667 million to Texas businesses with a slew of changes to the franchise tax—$270 million of which came from amendments tacked on during hours of debate on the floor. The plan is in keeping with Gov. Rick Perry’s call for business tax “relief,” though the Texas Tribune notes the bill will be a tough sell in the Senate.

The much-maligned business tax has never raised as much as it was intended to, saddling lawmakers with an $8 billion deficit at the start of each session since the tax was reworked in 2006. House members dug that hole a little deeper today.

Rather than rework the tax law in a streamlined fashion, House Ways and Means Chairman Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) proposed a series of tweaks aimed at particular businesses. Lawmakers—mostly Republicans, some Democrats as well—dropped in amendments adding $20 million at a time, one after another. Most defended their proposals as relief for small business owners. Rep. Angie Chen Button (R-Garland) threw in a $20 million break for corporations with federal contracts, mentioning defense contractor Raytheon as a particular inspiration.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) brought an abacus to the back microphone to remind lawmakers he was watching what their amendments cost. He kept the heat on Hilderbran all afternoon. Hilderbran and Turner talked in circles about just who benefits from lowering the tax on businesses, building to a fiery exchange.

Hilderbran: “The small businesses, the mom-and-pop employers, get a tax break in this bill, and their employees will be better off.”

Turner: “Is there a tax break in HB 500 for mom and dad who do not own a business?”

Hilderbran: “If they work for those businesses they benefit from this too, because those businesses thrive, they’re more competitive and they’re gonna grow and then they’re gonna be in a position to elevate wages and hire more people.”

Turner: “Let me telll you my concern here with this bill and some of the others, we talk about—”

At the sound of the speaker’s gavel, signifying his time was up, Turner dropped his head, gathered his papers and stepped aside. Hilderbran sighed, “Daggum, Sylvester.”

On Twitter through it all, the Center for Public Policy Priorities’ tax and budget experts Dick Lavine and Eva DeLuna Castro groused about the ham-handed show of policymaking like they were watching from the Muppet Show balcony. Castro noted the debate showed the “difficulty of cutting business taxes when they’re so low to begin with.” Lavine poked at lawmakers claiming their tax exemptions would only cost a few million, naming school programs the state could fully fund with the difference.

Facing criticism that their cuts would cost the state too much in the next two years, some lawmakers just bumped their cuts back a few years. Lavine called one amendment, from Houston Republican Jim Murphy, a “time bomb” for the 2016-17 budget.

Dallas Democrat Yvonne Davis struck a grave note about the tax reform effort, recalling what a mess the margins tax was when lawmakers created it seven years ago.

“It had an $8 billion hole in it when we passed it. It never performed the way they thought it was going to perform, and what we’re doing today is not fixing that problem,” Davis said. “This has become just a pork barrel add-on attempt to get money for your special interests and special projects.”

Reasoning Mind poster

At one point during this year’s SXSWedu—a slick Austin conference heavy on marketing for education technology—an audience member stood and asked a panel of Texas lawmakers the question most in the room were probably wondering: how do you get the state of Texas to buy your software?

State Rep. Dan Branch suggested an egalitarian process at work behind the scenes: build a good product and put in your time convincing lawmakers. “If you walk the halls and talk to key members of committees, I think you can get your message out pretty well,” Branch said. For example, he said, one particular outfit called Reasoning Mind has built a reputation at the Capitol as “a very strong math software program.”

The creators of the Reasoning Mind software have certainly found success in Texas, but Dan Branch might be surprised to learn how they attained it.

The state contracts with all sorts of companies for educational software; most decisions are made by the Texas Education Agency. Reasoning Mind, a math program, is the only software program lawmakers wrote into the budget by name last session.

In its most recent funding request, TEA suggested cutting Reasoning Mind—they’d already contracted with another online math program—but lawmakers weren’t keen on ditching it. They gave the program its own budget rider and kept its funding steady, at $2.25 million in public funds a year.

It’s even more impressive that Reasoning Mind did so well at the Capitol without the services of a registered lobbyist. But Reasoning Mind has something even better going for it: close friends in the highest ranks of big oil.

Reasoning Mind’s board is chaired by Ernest H. Cockrell, the longtime head of the Cockrell Oil Corp. Its vice chair is Forrest Hoglund, a former Enron CEO and a force in the Dallas philanthropy world. As of 2011, the program’s biggest backer was the ExxonMobil Foundation, which, according to EducationWeek, had donated $5 million to Reasoning Mind. In April, the world’s largest corporation leaned on its support for Reasoning Mind to rebut an ad by an anti-oil group suggesting that “Exxon hates your children.”

Russian couple Alex and Julia Khachatryan founded Reasoning Mind in 2000 as a computer-based math education program for their son, whose school lessons they deemed too basic. Geared toward students in grades 2 through 6, Reasoning Mind promises to build math skills and to encourage critical thinking and independent learning, all with a game-like interface for kids.

Those friends in the oil industry are no accident. Before starting Reasoning Mind, the Khachatryans ran a firm called RPC overseas—short for Russian Petroleum Consultants—based in Moscow and Houston, with clients including Halliburton, Koch Industries and Cockrell Oil. According to its tax filings, Reasoning Mind spent $1.6 million on “computer programming and testing of end product” in Moscow, and paid another $20,000 direct to RPC Overseas for office space. As president and CEO, Alex Khachatryan made $62,292 in 2011, down from $115,000 the year before.

The program is growing. Schools in a few states use Reasoning Mind today, but its strongest foothold is in Texas, where Houston ISD and Dallas ISD both use the program. In all, the company says, 60,000 Texans use the program either as a supplemental curriculum or a full-time course. Nearly 11,000 copies were paid for by TEA.

The company has proved resilient when its funding is threatened. In summer of 2011, during the special legislative session on the state budget, the House overwhelmingly approved an amendment to zero out funding for Reasoning Mind. But when the budget bill returned from conference committee with the Senate, the math program’s rider was back in. House members couldn’t change the bill at that point, so Reasoning Mind’s funding continued. Because the conference committee discussions are closed to the public, it’s hard to say who in the Senate championed the program. Reasoning Mind’s two biggest boosters, Cockrell and Hoglund, have each given $66,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s campaigns since 2004.

In November 2012, the Dallas Morning News reported an internal study from Dallas ISD saying the program cost too much and did too little—but the district with more Reasoning Mind students than any other in the state stood by the program and pulled the study from its site.

Reasoning Mind countered with studies of its own. To help out, Reasoning Mind’s blue-blooded backers got involved. The News recounted an interview with Hoglund, who “said prominent charitable givers might pull their support for DISD if it isn’t continued.”

Too many important people, in other words, had too much invested in the program to let the district pull the plug—performance be damned.

Like so much else in Texas, in the education tech business, it helps to know a few oil execs.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio)

In a county juvenile lockup, you can be shut alone in a room for all sorts of things. Fighting, sure, or trying to escape. But in some counties, “horseplay” and “disrespectful attitude” also count as “major rules violations” that could land you in seclusion with no idea when you’ll get out.

Youth advocates say some counties are putting kids in seclusion too readily, for far too long. Juvenile justice officials say they have those rules for a reason, and when a child is dangerous and acting out, they simply have to isolate them.

It’s a familiar disagreement in juvenile justice, but lawmakers got to hear it again Tuesday night as they considered placing a four-hour limit on counties’ use of seclusion.

Under a bill from Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), only assault, escaping or trying to escape would carry a penalty of seclusion for more than four hours. Each county facility in the state would also have to report how often it placed juveniles in solitary, and why.

As part of the movement away from big, state-run juvenile facilities, more kids are held and treated by county juvenile probation offices. It’s a good idea for many reasons, but it also means rules can vary from one county to the next. It’s tough to get statewide data from such a decentralized system, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says the state’s oversight of the county system is still too weak.

In advance of the bill’s hearing, the Associated Press took a longer look at the issue, and some of the research on why solitary confinement is so harmful for kids.

“This bill reflects a national trend in rethinking the use of solitary confinement,” said Catherine McCullough from the ACLU of Texas Tuesday night—but the county juvenile officials who turned up uniformly opposed the bill.

Some argued that four hours in seclusion was no great deterrent at all—at 9 p.m., after waiting all afternoon to testify, one woman joked that even “eight hours goes by pretty fast”—and only long stints in seclusion would make an impression on kids.

Others said disciplinary seclusion was hardly as bad as advocates suggest. “When kids are in their room … they have to have all their rights given to them,” said Doug Vance, the chief juvenile probation officer for Brazos County. “They’re not locked away in some dungy cell for hours and hours on end.”

They made a strong distinction between their disciplinary seclusion and the sort of solitary confinement youth might get in the adult system.

The county officials said they were fine with reporting their use of seclusion, but urged senators to commission a study on improving their use of seclusion—if there’s any problem at all.

Mark Williams, Tom Green County’s chief probation officer, said Van de Putte’s bill ignores the reality of running a youth lockup, and gives too much credence to the opinions of outsiders.

“The people that don’t work with the kids are the ones that really like this bill,” he said, “and the ones that work with the kids are the ones that do not.”

Dan Patrick
State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston)

After getting overwhelming approval from the House—and then sitting for a few weeks—a bill bringing big changes to Texas’ testing and graduation requirements is on the move again.

Pro-testing national groups have made the most of this break in the action—in a three-day stretch last week, the Washington Post editorialized against House Bill 5  and The New York Times took a rough look at Texas lawmakers ready to embrace “backtracking on testing.”

Opening this morning’s Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill, Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) was ready with a wagging finger of his own for those East Coast elitists. “Since when does Texas worry about what the Washington Post editorial board and the New York Times editorial board have to say about our legislation in Texas?” he wondered.

“Maybe the Legislature should just go home and let The New York Times represent the House and the Washington Post represent the Senate,” he went on—a ridiculous idea because the Times would be a much better fit for the Senate.

For months, the big education policy action was all about scaling back the state exams; Texas’ 15 high school tests are far more than any other state requires. Trimming the number of tests has been an easy sell at the Capitol this session.

By the time HB 5 came up on the House floor, the real debate was about the bill’s new graduation plans, which would no longer require the 4-by-4 plan passed in 2009 to promote college readiness for all students. Higher education leaders worry the new plan will send more students into university classes they’re not prepared for—something the Times reported Gov. Rick Perry is concerned too. Advocates for Hispanic students worried the new focus on “career readiness” would be unfairly applied to minority students. (Check out the Dallas Observer‘s Jim Schutze for more on why “advocates for poor and minority children are fighting to keep high standards.”)

So Patrick came out swinging this morning to defend the bill—and to jab at the bill’s detractors. Patrick noted that companies with the Texas Association of Business, a group that’s been critical of HB 5, haven’t come to his office to explain their problems. Any claims that the new graduation requirements are less rigorous than the current ones, he said, are “just false.”

He said he recognizes there are some folks with whom he’ll simply disagree. “I realize some think that if you don’t have algebra II, chemistry and physics that somehow you’re not ready for life,” he said. “Well, not every student needs algebra II, chemistry and physics.”

But he saved his best shots for Pearson, the company that creates and scores Texas’ tests. “The testing company’s in the business of making a profit, and I understand that—I’m a small business guy,” he said. Later, he called on Pearson vice president David Clark to answer some questions not about the bill exactly, but about his company’s interest in the General Education Development (GED) test.

“So in business, you have them coming and going,” Patrick said “If they fail in high schools and have to go to a GED, you sell a test there.”

Clark disagreed with Patrick’s premise. “The implication of that, Senator, is that somehow, Pearson would welcome the failing of students so they’d be forced to take one more test,” he said.

Patrick, though, shared an unsettling realization about the private sector. “I’m just respectfully saying that the objective of Pearson, which is their right, is to make a profit. And the objective of Pearson is not in the best interest of the students and teachers,” he said.

The committee room was full of support for HB 5, ready with laughter or applause for lines like that one. At one point, Sen. Kel Seliger warned the crowd that “this is a hearing and not American Idol.”

MALDEF lawyer Marisa Bono offered rare criticism of the bill in today’s hearing, saying they’re “concerned HB 5 still creates opportunities for tracking.” What should be most important to lawmakers, she said, is giving schools the resources they need to educate kids. “We know this because we’ve seen it happen. These students can meet any level of rigor that the Legislature puts in front of them, if they’re given the proper support.”

The committee voted out House Bill 5 this afternoon, with a few changes from the House version, replacing the graduation paths with similar plans Patrick proposed in other bills. Other changes would provide state funding for students to take SAT or ACT tests—offset by the savings from giving fewer STAAR tests and providing more money to support kids retaking the tests.

Democratic Senators Leticia Van de Putte and Royce West took symbolic present-not-voting votes, saying they hoped to work on the bill before it reaches the Senate floor. Van de Putte said she’s concerned students will be too likely, under HB 5, to choose a graduation path that disqualifies them from state-funded college grants or automatic admission to state universities.

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.

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