School choice leg­is­la­tion un­con­sti­tu­tional, foes say

More than 100 ask to tes­tify at hear­ing into Se­nate Bill 3 pro­pos­als.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Chang jchang@states­man.com

Pub­lic school of­fi­cials and their ad­vo­cates told Texas law­mak­ers Tues­day that an ef­fort to re­di­rect

state money to pri­vate schools is un­con­sti­tu­tional and un­likely to im­prove aca­demic per­for­mance, par­tic­u­larly for low-in­come mi­nor­ity stu­dents.

“There has been a lack of any real ev­i­dence to show that this works,” said Yan­nis Banks of the Texas NAACP. “I’ve heard peo- ple men­tion that this is the civil rights is­sue of our time. This is far from the civil rights is­sue of our time.”

More than 100 peo­ple signed up to tes­tify on Se­nate Bill 3, which has emerged as one of the most di­vi­sive pieces of ed­u­ca­tion leg­is­la­tion this ses­sion, dur­ing a state Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee hear­ing that con­tin­ued into the night.

The bill, which pro­po­nents have called a school choice bill and op­po­nents have com­pared to pri­vate school vouch­ers, would cre­ate a sys­tem of ed­u­ca­tion sav­ings ac­counts and tax credit schol­ar­ships.

Ex­pand­ing school choice has been a pri­or­ity for Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick and Gov. Greg Ab­bott, who has pledged to sign any school choice bill that crosses his desk. Both Repub­li­cans have said that such a mea­sure would in­crease com­pe­ti­tion in pub­lic schools and cre­ate ac­cess for poor stu­dents who can’t af­ford pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion op­tions.

Stu­dents leav­ing pub­lic schools could use the sav­ings ac­counts to pay for a va­ri­ety of ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices, in­clud­ing tuition for pri­vate schools, on­line cour­ses and ed­u­ca­tional ther­a­pies. For each stu­dent who leaves pub­lic school, SB 3 would redi- rect a por­tion of the per-stu- dent state money the school district re­ceives to the sav

ings ac­counts. Low-in­come stu­dents could also qual­ify for tax credit schol­ar­ships to use to­ward pri­vate school tuition. Busi­nesses that do­nate to the schol­ar­ship fund would re­ceive a tax credit from the state.

“Five-plus mil­lion kids in Texas — and we’re try

ing to im­prove the abil­i­ties and op­por­tu­ni­ties for all of them,” said the bill’s au­thor, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood.

Ex­pand­ing school choice has been a pri­or­ity for Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick and Gov. Greg Ab­bott, who has pledged to sign any school choice bill that crosses his desk. Both Repub­li­cans have said that such a mea­sure would in­crease com­pe­ti­tion in pub­lic schools and cre­ate ac­cess for poor stu- dents who can’t af­ford pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion op­tions.

The re c ep t ion in the House, how­ever, has been luke­warm, par­tic­u­larly from Democrats and mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans who said they fear the dam­age it could do to pub­lic schools.

The Leg­isla­tive Bud­get Board es­ti­mates that 50,000 stu­dents would take ad­van­tage of the tax credit schol­ar­ship and ed­u­ca­tional sav- ings ac­counts in the 2018-19 bud­get cy­cle, at a cost of up to $330 mil­lion.

Sev­eral pub­lic school sup­port­ers told law­mak­ers Tues­day that the bill would strip money from cash-strapped cam­puses and give it to pri­vate schools that aren’t held to the same ac­count­abil­ity stan­dards.

Janna Lilly of the Texas Coun­cil of Ad­min­is­tra­tors of Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion said pub­lic schools must pro­vide in­di­vid­u­al­ized learn­ing plans for chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, cam­eras in the class­room when par­ents re­quest

them and high-qual­ity cur­ricu­lum stan­dards. She said pri­vate schools do not.

Charles Luke of the Coali­tion for Pub­lic Schools said he feared the bill would be un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause pub­lic dol­lars would be used to sup­port the teach­ing of re­li­gious texts in parochial schools.

Christo­pher Lu­bi­en­ski, a Univer­sity of In­di­ana pro­fes­sor, pointed to stud­ies show­ing that stu­dent aca­demic per­for­mance didn’t im­prove in states like Louisiana, Ohio, In­di­ana and North Carolina that have voucher sys­tems.

Mean­while, sev­eral pol­icy ex­perts and schol­ars from out­side of Texas tes­ti­fied that school choice sys­tems saved other states money, al­lowed par­ents to hold schools ac­count­able and would help al­le­vi­ate the en­roll­ment growth that Texas pub­lic schools are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

“It is still very com­mon in the ur­ban and sub­ur­ban ar­eas of Texas for school dis­tricts to be us­ing trail­ers and por­ta­ble build­ings” to ac­com­mo­date en­roll­ment growth, said Matthew Lad- ner, a se­nior re­search fel­low with the Vir­ginia-based Charles Koch In­sti­tute, a pub­lic pol­icy or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports con­ser­va­tive eco­nomic prin­ci­ples.

Of­fi­cials with sev­eral San An­to­nio pri­vate schools said they are held to high stan­dards and that many of them of­fer stu­dents the same ser­vices found in pub­lic schools.

Sen. Ed­die Lu­cio Jr. of Brownsville, one of the few Democrats who ap­peared to sup­port Taylor’s bill, said SB 3 wouldn’t be a man­date for any­one to choose pri­vate school over pub­lic school, adding that it would give

par­ents the right to make that choice.

“What we’re do­ing is ad­dress­ing the needs of our chil­dren,” he said.

DEB­O­RAH CAN­NON / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Pro­test­ers rally against Se­nate Bill 3 on Tues­day dur­ing the Texas Latino Ed­u­ca­tion Coali­tion’s Day of Ac­tion at the Capi­tol. The bill is prov­ing to be one of the most di­vi­sive of the ses­sion.

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