The main bill up for discussion was Dan Patrick's SB 23, which would establish the Texas Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program. It would allow certain organizations to award scholarships to pay educational expenses for eligible students in public elementary or secondary schools to attend private or parochial schools. To be eligible, a student's family income must fall within the guidelines for the national free or reduced lunch program.
Make no mistake about it: SB 23 is a backdoor vouchers program. It relies on public money to serve a private purpose.
Several religious groups were represented at the hearing, foremost among them Catholics, who flooded the Capitol and were overwhelmingly supportive of the bill. The archdiocese of San Antonio showed up in force. "This gives people hope for the future," was their testimony. "It's assistance based on need." Most of the witnesses testified for the bill, but there was also substantial opposition. A Baptist minister said in an assertive voice, "I'm not here on God's behalf, just the Baptist General Convention." "The Christian Life Commission sees this as a voucher," he said, added. "It's a diversion of public funds to private schools. My chief objection is church-state separation. This state has no right to establish any religious cause. Most of our churches see the public school system as a basic building block for the public good."
Readers may recall that Wendy Davis was stripped of her membership on the Education committee by Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst. It didn't slow her down. Davis sat at the dais throughout the hearing. "A certain class of taxpayers gets to decide where the money goes," she said. When the claim was made that the bill does not take money from public schools, she said, "If [the bill] doesn't take it from public schools, where is it coming from?"
Of course the bill takes money from public schools. The business margins tax, passed in 2006, was supposed to provide the dollars necessary to close the gap between the money needed for education and the amount of the property tax cut. The money from the tax is general revenue that was orignally earmarked for public schools. "The only way to create a tax contribution is through the margins tax," Davis said. "What we're saying is, some taxpayers can decide where their tax dollars will go."
Senator Donna Campbell was for the bill. "I am not happy, as a taxpayer, [that] some of my taxes go to failing schools," she said. "I oppose any obstruction to choice." Yes, and some of them may go to build roads. Some may be used to build mammoth video screens. You can't run a government by holding a referendum in which everyone in the state gets to label where their tax dollars are going to go--something, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on long ago.
I found the testimony from the Grace Community School in Tyler to be rather strange: We serve a lower socio-economic group, was the testimony, but then we learned that tuition at the school was $8,200 a year. That seems like a lot to me for a family from a lower socio-economic group.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation apparently sought to make the point that Texas schools were failing. "Texas had a great run of reform and enjoyed gains in the public school system. But there have been no NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national standardized test) gains in reading since 2002.) Only 42% are proficient in reading."
The TPPF representative also made the point that Iowa and Florida have passed tax-credit legislation. Former lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff, who is now with the advocacy group Raise Your Hand, testified against the bill. "I am for choice," Ratliff said. "I am the author of Senate Bill 1 (1995) which created charter schools. There are 500,000 students who attend a school outside the public education system." Patrick asked him, what would you do? Ratliff's answer was, "I would make the margins tax work, and do what it is supposed to do." (This would require a tax increase, of course.) Ratliff then pointed out that not only was $5.4 billion cut from education in 2011, but also, for the first time, enrollment growth was not funded.
The last witness who testified in opposition to the bill said, "This bill does nothing to fix public education. What are we doing to fix public education? We are taking away tax dollars that would have come to the state of Texas. The first ten [witnesses] came here with their hands out, asking for money." In the end, the bill was left pending in committee.
I have never supported school vouchers, but I do believe that Patrick's legislation raises an excruciatingly difficult question. What do you do when a student is trapped in a bad situation? That is essentially the question that Scott Turner raised during the vouchers debate on HB 1 with Abel Herrero. The problem is that schools have to deal with situations they never dreamed of: students with special needs, students whose parents cannot provide parental guidance, students with severe developmental and emotional needs. If I were a parent of such a student, I would want my child's school to be required to address those needs.
But I would also try to realize that schools have their own problems: overcrowded classrooms, disciplinary and safety concerns, and budgetary limitations. They are, after all, public schools, and they are funded with public dollars, and they are the only recourse we have for educating the hundreds of thousands of students who will define Texas's future. It's hard enough for schools to operate in the environment left behind by the 82nd Legislature: unprecedented budget cuts, massive layoffs, and the mission to serve everyone who comes to your door in an era of shrinking public and political support.
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