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