As I watched Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick explain the economics of school choice at a Capitol rally today, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Senate’s new-found interest in public school finance isn’t a way to advance his voucher plan.
Patrick last year had said there was not enough time to overhaul the way Texas pays for public education during the regular legislative session. Speaker Joe Straus and leaders in the House are advocating for passing a school finance fix before lawmakers adjourn in June—an idea the Senate has resisted. Then, suddenly, yesterday Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson in the first meeting of this year appointed a special committee headed by Senator Larry Taylor to investigate all possibilities of redoing the system of taxes and payments used to finance public schools. “Clean slate, Senator Taylor. Start with a clean state, and look at how to fix the system,” she said.
Then today I hear Patrick giving his own version of the school finance of choice during a Capitol rally. Public school advocates and teachers usually frame the vouchers debate as diverting taxpayer money from public schools, but Patrick declared that was not true. “This is not a war on public education,” he said. Imagine four chairs for students, he said. One moves out of state and another is home schooled and the third merely drops out because the school is bad. “It doesn’t take money from education because they don’t have to teach the child,” Patrick said. What he didn’t point out is that in those instances, money stays in the public education system, while in a school choice program money leaves the system and follows a child into a private school or charter school.
Patrick noted that the Senate passed a school choice plan in 2015 but it died in the House. “If you block a vote on school choice, you’re blocking a vote on the future of a child,” Patrick told the rally. “We want a vote, up or down, in the Senate and in the House, on school choice.” Sounds like a challenge to Straus who wants a vote on funding the public schools. The proposed House budget includes $1.5 billion in spending to take part of the burden off of local property taxpayers to cover the cost of education.
If you want some evidence that Patrick may not be serious about doing public school finance this session, all you have to do is look at his hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle. On January 13, Andrea Zelinski published a report that included this interview with Larry Taylor:
Sen. Larry Taylor, who last year chaired the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers likely will not pass a full overhaul this session. Lawmakers should instead begin crafting a framework for the ideal school funding system then spend the interim trying to figure out how to make it work in the real world.
“Every time you make a change, there are going to be winners and losers, but we have to come up with a system we all agree is fair,” said the Friendswood Republican.
In the meantime, the Chronicle wrote a scathing editorial called “Rhetoric v. action,” the subhead of which read: “The budget from Dan Patrick’s Senate all but guarantees higher property taxes.” Notable lines include: “Your property taxes just aren’t as important as his potty patrol.”
But after Nelson announced the new school finance study committee yesterday, Taylor, in an interview with the Chronicle, suddenly sounded like a man who wants to get something done.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who Nelson selected on Monday to lead the Senate study, said the timing is right for a top-to-bottom review. All aspects of school funding are expected to be on the table for discussion, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling that did not throw out the old system but instead gave the Legislature time to come up with a new funding method.
“They’ve actually cleared the air for us to come and do a meaningful reform,” he said.
Announcing an everything-is-on-the-table study the day before a major school choice rally appeared, to me at least, as an offer of a trade: The Senate will go along with a public school finance plan if the House will support a private school voucher plan.