Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed school voucher legislation since he entered the Senate in 2007, comparing the effort to the civil rights struggle. After numerous defeats during past sessions, Patrick’s voucher crusade came a step closer to reality Monday as the Senate passed Senate Bill 4, by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood).
The bill passed 18-12 on mostly partisan lines. Only one Democrat voted for the bill, Sen. Eddie Lucio (R-Brownsville), while two Republicans voted against it, Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) and Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville).
Taylor’s bill would create scholarships for mostly low-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships. The bill is similar to one proposed by Patrick in 2013, which died in committee.
“This is not a voucher bill,” Taylor said during the debate.
Critics of the proposal, though, say tax credit scholarships are simply vouchers by a different name. Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) and Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) voiced concerns that tax credit scholarships would funnel money from public schools to private and religious schools, which are not required to administer state tests or meet state accountability standards.
Rodriguez offered an amendment that would hold voucher-funded private schools to the same accountability standards as public schools. Menendez offered another measure that would prohibit private schools from discriminating on the basis of race or sexual orientation. Both amendments were defeated.
Taylor and Patrick have framed the voucher debate in terms of giving low-income children a chance to escape failing public schools. School choice, they say, will lead to competition between schools and better educational quality across the board.
“If you are the working poor, and you’re in the inner city, and you take a bus to work, you can’t live in the suburbs, and you don’t have money for private school, why are you denied an opportunity for your child?” Patrick said in a January Texas Tribune interview.
Rev. Charles Johnson, director of Pastors for Texas Children, a public school advocacy group, said the push for vouchers is more a fight for money than improving educational opportunity for poor students.
“If this were about kids, we’d target those 70 or 80 struggling schools out of 8,500 public schools and we would give them the resources they need to succeed,” he said. “The Legislature consistently refuses to do that.”
Despite making progress in the Senate, critics say vouchers will face an uphill battle in the House.
During the House budget debate three weeks ago, Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) withdrew an amendment that would have banned spending public money on private school vouchers. Herrero said the measure was unnecessary because vouchers would not pass in the House.
“For all intents and purposes vouchers are dead in the House,” Herrero said.
Patrick proved Monday he could guide vouchers through the Senate. It remains to be seen if the House can do what has proved impossible for decades: Get a voucher bill to the governor’s desk.