Open Season on Public Schools During Voucher Debate

Sen. Donna Campbell responds to a question from Sen. Kel Seliger
John Savage
Sen. Donna Campbell responds to a question from Sen. Kel Seliger

Like an obstinate weed that just won’t die, the debate over school vouchers returned to the Capitol for the 11th straight legislative session on Thursday.

With former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and GOP mega-donor James Leininger on hand to testify in front of dozens of adamant voucher supporters, the hearing took on a carnival-like atmosphere at times.

Some voucher advocates, including Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), used Thursday’s hearing on a pair of school voucher bills to rail about the state of public schools.

“Today we have a monstrosity, a monopoly,” Campbell said. “It’s called public school.”

Campbell’s solution to the monstrous public school system, Senate Bill 276, would pay parents up to 60 percent of the statewide average per-student cost of operating public schools if they move their children to private schools. That would amount to about $5,200 per student, Campbell said.

Testifying in favor Campbell’s bill, Gramm repeated the common, if vehemently disputed, trope: Our public schools are failing.

“I believe we need dramatic action,” Gramm said. “When you have over a 40 percent dropout rate, and when you have schools that year after year after year cannot meet minimum standards, something is wrong.”

According to the Texas Education Agency, Gramm was wrong. Texas’ annual dropout rate for grades 7-12 was only 1.6 percent in 2012-2013. The long-term dropout rate for the class of 2013 was 6.6 percent. And just a few days ago, Gov. Greg Abbott shared the exciting news on Twitter that Texas’ graduation rate among black and Hispanic students was first in the nation.

Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm
John Savage
Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm testifying in support of school vouchers

Despite being scotched repeatedly in the past by an alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans, proponents of vouchers—Campbell calls them “taxpayer savings grants”—say they may have a chance of passing this session.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen this session,”  Vance Ginn of the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation told the Observer. “This is the best opportunity that we’ve seen because of the push that we are getting from leadership.”

Ginn was referring to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is an adamant supporter of vouchers and has made them one of his legislative priorities.

Patrick even showed up to testify—and snap a selfie. Patrick invoked the experience of Leininger, who funded thousands of private school scholarships for students in San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD.

“Guess what happens in the Edgewood school district?” Patrick said. “[Their test scores] went up dramatically because of the competition that was created.”

Leininger, a multi-millionaire who founded TPPF and is considered one of Texas’ most powerful political powerbrokers, testified earlier in the day about his positive experience with private school scholarships in the Edgewood district.

According to a report from the National Education Association, Edgewood lost $5,800 for every student who used a scholarship to leave the district, and “the resulting loss of $4.8 million caused numerous disruptions and dimunitions [sic] in the quality of education for public school students.”

In addition to draining funds from public schools, critics voiced other major concerns: lack of accountability for private schools, which are exempted from state testing, and the high cost of private school tuition. While Campbell’s bill may provide up to $5,200 to cover that tuition, the average private high school tuition cost is almost $9,000 per year in Texas. Upper-echelon schools often charge more than $20,000 per year.

While Ginn says Campbell’s bill has the best chance of passing out of committee, the Education Committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 642 by Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).

Bettencourt’s bill would give private businesses a tax credit for creating private school scholarships, a plan similar to one proposed by Patrick and Campbell in 2013.

Pastor Kyle Henderson of First Baptist Church in Athens testified that voucher proponent’s attacks on public schools and teachers bothered him.

“I am stunned by the disdain expressed to public school teachers in this room,” Henderson said.

Joanna Sanchez, University of Texas education policy researcher and policy fellow for Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), says that studies on vouchers and student outcomes don’t suggest they can improve student achievement on a large scale.

“The empirical evidence shows that vouchers lead to increased sorting of students by socioeconomic status, and does not support the claim that vouchers help disadvantaged children” Sanchez told the Observer.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-houston) voiced perhaps the most vehement opposition to the bills.

“Isn’t this just a money grab by non-public schools?” Garca asked.

Both bills were left pending in committee.

John Savage is a writer based in Austin.

Published at 7:14 pm CST