Se­nate lead­ers seek aid for pri­vate school stu­dents, test­ing changes.


Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate Alexan­der kalexan­der@states­

Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dan Pa­trick on Wed­nes­day set two ex­plo­sive ed­u­ca­tion is­sues on a col­li­sion course in the up­com­ing leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

In­side a Catholic ele­men­tary school just blocks from the Texas Capi­tol, Pa­trick un­veiled a broad, five-point ed­u­ca­tion re­form package that in­cludes a plan for help­ing pub­lic school stu­dents at­tend pri­vate schools. The “tax­credit schol­ar­ship” would be paid for through do­na­tions from busi­nesses that would in turn re­ceive a par­tial tax credit from the state.

Pa­trick plans to link the con­tro­ver­sial “school choice” el­e­ment with changes to the state’s test­ing and accountability sys­tem, an is­sue that has gen­er­ated con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal heat among par­ents and busi­ness in­ter­ests. The bill hasn’t yet been filed.

“They are tied to­gether be­cause what we are really talk­ing about is giv­ing choice to dis­tricts,” Pa­trick, RHous­ton, said in an in­ter­view.

School dis­tricts asked for flex­i­bil­ity on the test­ing sys­tem — the State of Texas As­sess­ment of Aca­demic Readi­ness or STAAR — as well as other changes that would al­low them to start school ear­lier, and Pa­trick said his bill would pro­vide that free­dom.

“I am go­ing the ex­tra mile to give su­per­in­ten­dents the op­por­tu­nity to be as suc­cess­ful as they can, and I want them to go the ex­tra mile with us on this tax-credit choice plan. It doesn’t take money away from

pub­lic schools, it’s a pro­gram that can help strug­gling stu­dents and poor stu­dents, and it’s some­thing that needs to be done,” said Pa­trick, who took the helm of the Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee this fall.

Ed­u­ca­tion groups wel­comed some of the re­forms pro­posed by Pa­trick, but some said the choice com­po­nent is a di­vi­sive dis­trac­tion that would di­vert time, money and at­ten­tion away from the needs of pub­lic schools, which ed­u­cate the vast ma­jor­ity of Texas stu­dents.

“It is re­gret­table that Sen. Pa­trick chose to bur­den some oth­er­wise sound pro­pos­als with the poi­son pill of school vouch­ers. Though the pro­posal is couched as a tax credit, make no mis­take — this is a pri­vate school voucher,” said David An­thony, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Raise Your Hand Texas, a pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cacy group, and a former school su­per­in­ten­dent.

Suzanne Marchman, a spokes­woman for the Texas As­so­ci­a­tion of School Ad­min­is­tra­tors, said the group’s mem­bers re­mained “stead­fast in our po­si­tion against vouch­ers or other sim­i­lar mea­sures, re­gard­less of any other pro­vi­sions in a bill that we sup­port, as they di­vert crit­i­cal state dol­lars from pub­lic schools.”

The “tax credit schol­ar­ship” for low-in­come stu­dents dif­fers from past school voucher bills that have met strong re­sis­tance in the Leg­is­la­ture. Rather than giv­ing par- ents a voucher to use to­ward pri­vate school tuition, the Pa­trick plan pro­vides busi­nesses that do­nate to pri­vate school schol­ar­ship pro­grams a credit on what they owe the state in fran­chise or in­surance taxes. That credit would be lim­ited to 25 per­cent of a busi­ness’s tax li­a­bil­ity.

Spe­cific de­tails about the size and cost of the pro­gram as well as the amount of the schol­ar­ship were still be­ing dis­cussed.

“At the end of the day, with a $50 mil­lion pro­gram or a $100 mil­lion pro­gram in a $91 bil­lion bud­get, it is life-chang­ing money for those fam­i­lies. Let’s not lose sight of the goal of the mis­sion: that is to make sure that stu­dents in poverty in low­per­form­ing schools have the same right as any other Texas fam­ily,” Pa­trick said.

Lt. Gov. David De­whurst, who joined Pa­trick at a news con­fer­ence, said the pro­gram would start off po­ten­tially as a mod­est pi­lot pro­gram to prove that it is ef­fec­tive and does not take money away from pub­lic schools.

The tax credit ap­proach has been en­dorsed by the Texas Catholic Con- fer­ence, the Union of Ortho­dox Jewish Con­gre­ga­tions of Amer­ica and the Texas As­so­ci­a­tion of Non-Pub­lic Schools, who to­gether claim to rep­re­sent nearly 90 per­cent of ac­cred­ited pri­vate schools in the state.

Pa­trick said pri­vate schools that ac­cept the schol­ar­ships wouldn’t be sub­ject to the state test­ing and accountability sys­tem.

“The fact that th­ese will be schol­ar­ship funds cre­ated by pri­vate busi­ness would al­low the pri­vate schools to ab­so­lutely con­tinue to op­er­ate as they are now,” Pa­trick said.

For educators, the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion is whether tax­payer dol­lars should be used to sub­si­dize pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion with­out any way to mea­sure the ef­fec­tive­ness of the money.

“You don’t even know that this is a bet­ter ‘op­por­tu­nity’ for th­ese stu­dents that you’re pick­ing out,” said Lindsay Gustafson of the Texas Class­room Teach­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. “Why aren’t we fix­ing the schools as a whole for all chil­dren?”

Pa­trick has said that “school choice” is an is­sue of para­mount im­por­tance to con­ser­va­tive vot­ers.

But even with the sup­port of De­whurst and Gov. Rick Perry, Pa­trick will have an up­hill fight get­ting the mea­sure passed be­cause Repub­li­cans aren’t nec­es­sar­ily united on this con­tro­ver­sial is­sue. Many ru­ral Repub­li­cans see min­i­mal ben­e­fit to their con­stituents be­cause there are few pri­vate school op­tions in their dis­tricts. Oth­ers see the di­vi­sive pro­gram as a dis­trac­tion from help­ing pub­lic schools.

The state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives has been much qui­eter on this is­sue in part be­cause that cham­ber doesn’t of­fi­cially choose its lead­ers un­til af­ter the ses­sion be­gins Jan. 8.

There will also be a change in lead­er­ship at the helm of the House Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee be­cause Chair­man Rob Eissler, R-The Wood­lands, lost his re-elec­tion bid.

Eissler’s pre­sumed suc­ces­sor, state Rep. Jim­mie Don Ay­cock, RKilleen, said House mem­bers over­whelm­ingly ex­pressed their de­sire to over­haul the test­ing sys­tem when they passed leg­is­la­tion last ses­sion that would have re­duced the num­ber of re­quired tests and ad­dressed many of the con­cerns that have blown up over the past year.

On school choice, Ay­cock said, the will of the Texas House is less ap­par­ent.

“That will de­pend on the na­ture of the de­tails of the bill,” Ay­cock said.

Su­san Mof­fat (cen­ter) joins a protest out­side the Cathe­dral School of Saint Mary in Austin where Sen. Dan Pa­trick un­veiled his school re­forms.

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