School choice legislation unconstitutional, foes say
More than 100 ask to testify at hearing into Senate Bill 3 proposals.
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.
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.