Hundreds of students, parents and educators, most donning bright yellow scarves, lined the South Steps of the Capitol Tuesday to hear two of the state’s top officials call for “school choice” legislation.
“Every parent deserves choices about where they will send their child to school. All these parents know this isn’t a Republican issue, it’s not a Democrat issue. This is a civil rights issue,” said Governor Greg Abbott, who proclaimed this week as the official “School Choice Week in the State of Texas.”
Texas conservatives have pushed so-called school choice — a range of programs, primarily vouchers and charter schools, that apply free-market principles to public education — for decades.
“I’ll be darned, as Lieutenant Governor, if I’m gonna let the kids and the parents of Texas be the last to have an opportunity at school choice,” said Dan Patrick, who wore a yellow scarf — a symbol of the “school choice” movement.
Critics, like state Senator José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, say it would greatly diminish funding for public schools. Research also shows that vouchers and other “school choice” efforts don’t consistently improve academic achievement and can increase racial segregation.
“Whether they call it ‘vouchers’ or ‘choice,’ it all comes out to the same — diverting public funds to private school pockets and allowing these private institutions to pick and choose their students with little accountability,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “Voucher schemes will do more harm than good to the vast majority of low-income and minority students, especially those left behind in under-resourced neighborhood schools.”
Patrick, who has advocated for the legislation since he first became a state senator in 2007, is working on a bill that would allow parents to use taxpayer money for charter, private, and parochial schools. He said at the rally that the notion of “school choice” taking money away from public schools is “not true.”
Although the bill has yet to be filed, Patrick hinted that the measure would utilize an “educational savings account,” or educational tax saving grants for businesses.
In 2015, state Senator Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed Senate Bill 4, which would have allowed private businesses to receive tax credits for funding scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools.
Abbott and Patrick both called on the House, where the bill died last legislative session without a vote, to pass the proposal this year.
“We will have a vote in the Senate,” said Patrick, who listed the issue as one of his top 10 priorities for this legislative session. “I hope we get a vote in the House, for every student and every family to make that decision of the choice for their education.”
Jason Embry, press secretary for House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said “the House’s priority remains improving education for all students and reforming the school finance system to improve equity and allow more local dollars to stay in local schools.”
“Traditionally, the Members of the House have not supported spending taxpayer dollars at private schools, and there are many questions to be answered on this issue in the months ahead,” Embry said.
Abbott, also donning a scarf, said he “hoped and urged” a “school choice” bill reaches his desk so that he could sign it into law.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning organization that “supports religious freedom, individual liberties and public education,” said in a statement the proposal would “force our neighborhood public schools to do more with less for the sake of private school vouchers.”
“Vouchers, by any name, are a scheme that strips critical funds from public schools and gives a discount to individuals who can already afford private school, and all at taxpayer expense and with zero accountability,” Miller said. “Democrats and Republicans in Texas have come together to defeat vouchers in every legislative session since 1995. It’s time state leaders drop their pursuit of vouchers and instead focus on giving our public schools and the children of Texas the resources they need to succeed.”