For the last few days, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has hosted a slew of discussions on issues facing the Legislature, but it sounds like nothing will dominate this session like proposals to rework public schools.
“Education is probably going to suck the air out of the Capitol,” is how state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) put it during a panel on school choice at TPPF’s policy orientation in downtown Austin.
As he has before, TPPF education analyst James Golsan suggested that lawmakers could remove some barriers to school districts becoming “home-rule school districts” and wresting local control from the state, but Huberty quickly defused that suggestion. He said there are plenty of school choice ideas with more momentum than home-rule school districts.
“That was a good idea at the time, but there’s not a single one of them,” Huberty said. “If you’ve got a law on the books you either need to make sure it works or get rid of it.” No districts currently operate under a home-rule charter, which requires a majority vote involving a 25 percent turn-out rate of registered voters in the school district.
Huberty instead focused on Texas’ limit on state-approved charter schools, capped at 215, and said the cap must be done away with. “There’s a lot of bad [charters] out there too,” he said. “Create some flexibility to deal with the bad ones, but reward the good ones.”
Louisiana Republican state Rep. Steve Carter had a major role in passing some of the broadest school choice measures in the nation during Louisiana’s last legislative session. “We’ve been criticized because we rammed it down everybody’s throat,” Carter said at the panel Thursday, but he said that’s the way ahead for Texas, too, because big reforms will never get done otherwise.
Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, said Texas should follow Louisiana’s example of local control, charter schools, and vouchers or tax credits for private schools.
“This is the civil rights issue of our time,” Patrick said, repeating a favorite line. He said school choice is the solution for impoverished students and students with special needs.
“I get passionate and I get mad when someone says ‘I’m not for vouchers, I’m not for tax credit,’” Patrick said. “You know what their reason is? It’s not about the students, it’s about protecting superintendents, it’s about protecting teachers and the adults.”
Patrick made light of the school district officials complaining about that they’re underfunded, joking that they should try getting home-schooled students back into public schools if they want more funding.
“Since being named chair of education I have been hammered by about everyone who can throw a hammer at me because I dare to give students and parents a choice to choose a school and have the American dream,” Patrick said.
Doug Rogers, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, was more circumspect about school choice. Rogers said the association’s philosophy is that communities should decide what’s best, but state and federal regulations have a role in maintaining safety and protecting equal opportunity for students.
“I can name you several schools that were established because they wanted a good basketball team–that’s local control,” Rogers said. “If there’s flexibility that needs to be given to some schools, why don’t we give it to all of the schools?”