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The Senate Suddenly Warms Up to Schools

Is a new study by Dan Patrick’s Senate a cover for private school vouchers?

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Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

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.

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  • BCinBCS

    As a scientist at heart, I believe in experimentation. On the other hand, as a political pragmatist, I understand how experimentation with large systems can result in their ruin. A compromise between these two might be to experimentally institute some of the reforms that school choice advocates propose within the established public school system.

    Would it be unconstitutional to have a Catholic public school as part of the school district or an all boys or all girls school? Would it irreparably damage the public school system to have a streamlined school with fewer administrators within that school system?

    It seems like a lot of questions could be answered by experimenting within the public school system while at the same time not destroying it.

    Ideas?
    Discussion?

    • WUSRPH

      As to your questions:

      Contrary to what some, such as the Troll, think, the public school system is not frozen in amber and never changing. There is already a lot of experimenting with various formats and management schemes going on.

      Nothing stands in the way of such “experiments” an all boys or all girls school. In fact, we have three “single sex” campuses in the Austin school district—the Ann Richards High School for girls and two same sex middle schools—one for boys and one for girls. The Richards School seems to be working out well, but the juries are still out on the middle schools……The girls seems to be working….but there are real problems at the boys. But both are only in their second year of a five-year trial.

      As to a Catholic public school as “part of the school district”…There is a distinct First Amendment (Separation of Church & State) problem here. The State could, under some court rulings, provide text books and some support to a Catholic School but there would have been some way to strictly separate that aid from any religious aspect. Making it part and parcel of the public system would probably be too much of a challenge to doing that. There have already been a number of reports about some of the supposedly public “Charter Schools” located on church properties (as is allowed) crossing that line.

      Charter Schools, themselves, were sold as being experiments in providing a public education without all the overhead, etc. but, based on test scores, etc., many of them are not providing to be better at educating children than many public schools. Some are, but they tend to be those who handpick their students…..

      The Legislature has also passed a series of laws that give districts—at local option—more independent authority but it is as yet too early to see just what the results will be.

      Talk about new formats, etc. (some of which I support and some of which I have suggested) is all good but it tends to distract from the basic problem—-WE DON’T SPEND ENOUGH ON THE SCHOOLS WE HAVE ALREADY. We can tinker with this and that and restructure this and that over there…but we cannot expect any real solutions until we face that essential fact.

      • BCinBCS

        Thanks for starting the discussion, W.

        I knew that I was on shaky constitutional ground with the Catholic schools in the public school system but it is not unreasonable for a Catholic school to teach all subjects except religion as part of that system and have a day (or half of a day) when they teach religion classes off campus and with teachers paid by the student’s parents. (Just an idea.)

        I hear the constant refrain that the solution to the problem is more money. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on that but I would appreciate any information about it. What do successful school districts spend? Are their any fiscally bare-bones schools that are successful?

        I have seen a number of reports on tremendous school successes in failing school districts on The NewsHour and 60 Minutes. They entailed EXTREME participation by schools in EVERY aspect of the students lives – to the point of them being Big Brother to the students (the 1984 version, not the adult buddy version). It worked amazingly well but I’m not sure that Texans would be politically prepared to offer that type of assistance or fiscally prepared to pay for it.

        I do not have a high degree of knowledge about secondary education so I am merely “tasting the icing on the school problem cake” but I believe that open-minded discussion can lead to solutions.

        (btw, check your e-mail and send a reply.)

        • WUSRPH

          I would direct you to Judge Dietz’s lengthy ruling (available on line) for a detailed analysis of the difference in the programs and the results by the amount of money spent…..plus the underfunding of the program.

          https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1281074-20140828-texas-school-finance-findings.html

          There is also a major difference in spending WITHIN districts as well as between districts. For example, schools with higher income parents have substantially more available raised by PTA and other non-tax sources to supplement their programs.

          As to the nation as a whole. Vermont, which is NO 1 in school test results, spends $22,000 per student. We spend about $10,000 (AVERAGE). More than 36 states spending more per student than Texas….virtually all of them have better results.

          As to the Catholic Schools, as I have noted court rulings have said that you can provide some aide as long as it is clearly separated from the religious aspects. One of my former bosses used to file bills every session allowing private/parochial schools to get their text books from the state. There was no constitutional barrier…….other than that the State Constitution does bar use of funds from the Permanent/Available School Fund. But GR money derived from other taxes could be used.

          • BCinBCS

            Sent again Tuesday night at 10:11pm.

          • WUSRPH

            Didn’t get it……I lost your e-mail when my computer blew up……mine is
            first initialmiddle [email protected]

          • BCinBCS

            Contact me at my “throw away” e-mail address: [email protected]

    • jake

      The District of Innovation legislation from last session does some of what you advocate. Basically it allows a school district to be free from any law a charter is currently exempt from. This ties into the original intent of charter schools, which was to experiment and if successful maticulate into all schools.

    • Gunslinger

      I have so many doubts about the voucher system. An experiment could be in order, but where to conduct it? An urban setting would be the best place. But then again, how would a voucher system work in a rural setting where there is no alternative within 40 miles or so?

      No matter the legitimate questions that get raised about this issue or an experiment of it, I can’t help but feel that Patrick is only concerned about giving away as many public school dollars as possible to private business. I don’t believe he cares much for children’s education.

      • WUSRPH

        Dr. Levinger of San Antonio, one of the blg voucher advocates, ran an experlmental schlorship program there for several years but dropped it. Ther were no reporta that it waa a success.

    • Jed

      the experiments you suggest are already being done. the results are what you would expect.

      turns out that peeling money out of the general fund for schools and giving it to particular sets of schools that not everyone can attend lowers the quality of education for those left behind.

      whoulda thunk?

  • John Bernard Books

    The easiest thing to learn is “if you keep doing the same thing with the same bad results then try something else.”
    I was maybe 3 mos old when I learned that I think.

  • John Bernard Books

    Why are dems so racist?
    “My job is to listen and be a voice and shut other white people down when they want to interrupt.”
    https://news.grabien.com/story-dnc-chair-candidates-bash-white-people-racially-charged-foru

    It takes a special kinda stupid to be a dem….luv it.

  • WUSRPH

    A major question still to be publicly addressed is just how far will Patrick go with his vouchers push this session, Will he be willing to limit it to the scholarships funded by rebates on the property tax, as was proposed and passed by the Senate last session OR will he go all out for direct public funding of private and church-run schools (and perhaps even home-schoolers) thru grants of state money to parents?
    The first method is likely to be more limited…as there are probably not that many franchise taxpayers ready to finance a part of the cost of private schools. The second would be an all-out attack on the idea of public education. The first is probably constitutional without any great challenge as it does not directly involve the State disbursing money to benefit a private or church school. The second would raise some serious constitutional issues ranging from where the money comes from to whether the entire concept violates the First Amendment.
    The question of where the money comes from arises from the fact that the Texas Constitution specifically bans the use of Permanent/Available School Funds for non-public schools. It could be sidestepped by insuring that any funds are strictly GR dollars raised by the sales and other taxes.
    On the surface it would appear that giving grants directly to parents who would then spend that money to non-public schools would violate the First Amendment….but Patrick and company might try to defend it on the same grounds used for the College Tuition Equalization Program, which a couple of Attorney Generals have said was okay. That program provides state tax dollars that can be spent on tuition at private colleges….Baylor and SMU are among the biggest recipients of the money….BUT it gets by the bans on using public money for private and church schools by giving the money to the students to use as they see fit and not to the schools, even though it probably eventually winds up there. The State, as it does with the TEG program, could claim that it made no expenditure for private education….but only provided state funds to students….What they did with it, is then not the State’s concern. (This argument could even be used to allow home-school parents to recoup some of their costs….in effect, reimbursing them for some of the property taxes they pay to support public schools.)
    It would be interesting to see if a state court, such as the Texas Supreme Court, would by this slight-of-hand approach….We may find out if Patrick decides to go all out.

  • José

    “All aspects of school funding are expected to be on the table for discussion…”

    So they will give serious and thoughtful consideration to a state income tax? “Clean slate, Senator Taylor.”

    • Gunslinger

      As long as what’s on the table is vouchers. I’d bet a crisp $100 bill that no elected official will utter the words “state income tax” into a mic this session.

      • donuthin2

        Clean slate, all on the table is just a metaphor and not be taken literally.

      • WUSRPH

        You will lose that bet. Some Democrat will say the word. But no one who has any power.

        • Gunslinger

          CRAP! I can’t afford to lose that $100! Why do I keep doing these things to myself!?!

          • José

            Obviously you need to argue that BB is Fake News and that the alternative fact is that there was no actual wager implied.

      • pwt7925

        Only if it is preceded by a “no” or a “there will never be a….” or followed by a “… over my dead body.”

    • pwt7925

      Not a chance. Much of Texas growth, arguably, is due to the lack of a state income tax and the perception that it provides a competitive advantage vs other states. Or that would certainly be a big part of the argument. Even without Tea Party influence, it would remain the Third Rail of Texas politics. Serious consideration of one would bring everything else to a screeching halt. Bob Bullock tried it, and it got nowhere.

      • WUSRPH

        But, for reasons known only to him, Bullock in effect sahotaged his own effort.

  • SpiritofPearl

    The dirty little secret that voucher advocates don’t discuss is that the poorest children can’t afford private school either with or without vouchers.

    Patrick and his cronies want to build a system of Christian madrasas with the taxpayers’ dollars. Wonder what his thoughts are on Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu schools?

    “Congress shall establish no religion . . .”

    • WUSRPH

      They cannot afford the existing private schools….BUT rest assured that, within days of such a bill passing, a whole slew of private “for profit” schools will open up who are more than willing to operate their programs on what the state will pay…….Of course, we are not going to talk about the quality of their education programs…..The for profit boys are being forced out of the post-high school business by the federal clamp down on their abuse of students….They need a new market and elementary and secondary schools are a perfect market for them. I suspect if you dig deep enough into the campaign finances of some of the legislators who are backing vouchers you will find some “for profit” money.

      • SpiritofPearl

        My family never received a nickel from the state of Missouri for my Catholic education. Archdiocesan schools were subsidized fairly heavily by the Catholic dioceses. Most of the Catholic schools from my childhood have closed, due in part to the abuse scandal payouts and the secularization of Catholic families.

        I had no idea that TX was subsidizing religious schools. Appalling! There’s a Muslim school in my neighborhood. Bet they’re not getting any state money!

        • WUSRPH

          The State Money, thru the TEG program, goes only to colleges and universities, not to elementary or secondary schools such as the Muslim school in your neighborhood. HOWEVER, should the vouchers bill be passed there is no way that the State could legally block it receiving voucher dollars as long as it is accredited….

          • SpiritofPearl

            I believe there will be a means to siphon most of the money to evangelical Christian schools. A committee or board will be established to evaluate the schools that participate. Guess who will staff those committees?

            My Unitarian minister in Indiana went to a gathering of ministers when GWB’s faith-based initiative started. There was one rabbi, one Unitarian, and the remaining were Christians.

          • WUSRPH

            It would be very difficult and legally doubtful to block any accredited school, no matter what the faith…but by sheer numbers you are right that more will go to Christian schools. Sen. Campbell wants no restrictions on where the money goes…..Even if you accept there interpretation of the First Amendment, which is unsupported by court rulings, they could not block one faith and allow another for any faith related matter. It would have to be on some grounds that applies to all schools. Accreditation would serve that function.

          • SpiritofPearl

            I’d like to know how private schools in TX are accredited.

          • WUSRPH

            By a private organizatio .A Google seaarch of accreditaation texas private schools will answer your questions.

          • SpiritofPearl

            A private organization?

          • SpiritofPearl

            And who accredits the acreditors? Seems fishy . . .

            http://www.texasprivateschools.org/accreditation.html

  • SpiritofPearl

    GOP Christianity has failed. It has has nothing of Jesus:

    https://sojo.net/articles/american-christianity-has-failed

  • sixgunbuffalo

    Does this mean that Texas tax dollars could be used to fund Muslim schools?

  • John Bernard Books

    It has been been a long road but MeNDan are finally getting vouchers.
    Public schools are a dem scam soon to be shut down…..
    “Solvency for the $116 billion Teacher’s Retirement System became a reality last year, but it didn’t come without sacrifice. In Austin, legislators compromised, deciding to raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62 and require school employees to make bigger contributions, from 6.4 percent of their pay to eventually 7.7 by 2016.”
    http://www.kvia.com/news/texas-public-pension-fund-set-to-go-broke/56467308

    But JBB if we just had more money to loot….

  • John Bernard Books

    Gov employees worst night mare…
    “The Environmental Protection Agency is facing a projected $800 million in budget cuts, as their facelift from the Trump administration continues. The White House has all but issued a gag order on the EPA regarding social media posts, blogs, and press releases.”
    http://townhall.com/tipsheet/mattvespa/2017/01/24/epa-expected-to-be-hit-with-800-million-in-budget-cuts-n2275830

    Next the IRS….its a coming dems

  • John Bernard Books

    Jan 26th 1998

  • Jay Trainor

    As a non-native Texan and one residing in an urban setting, Lt. Gov. Patrick has no conception of the centrality and pride public schools have in small towns. There’s nothing more important than ensuring kids get the best education possible so they can compete in this ever more competitive world economy.

    Lt. Gov. Patrick is more concerned about helping hedge funds make money off of charter schools and supports them to appease parents who want to re-segregate our schools or use public money to teach religious education with the help of taxpayer dollars. In 1987 Gov. Mark White lost his reelection bid because he vetoed a bill to give teachers a cost of living raise. Teachers and their relatives organized and elected White’s opponent. The same uproar among teachers, retired teachers, their relatives and community leaders is necessary to stop Dan Patrick from ruining our public schools. I urge people interested in improving public schools to call your elected officials and make it clear you expect state and local money to be more equitable and let the for profit and private schools to find their own sources of money because it was the choice of those parents select a non-public school for their children.

    For more information read the business oriented Forbes Magazine article that shows what this debate is really all about.
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2013/09/10/charter-school-gravy-train-runs-express-to-fat-city/#2c880cd070e5

    • WUSRPH

      An informative article…..It also gives some names to look for on campaign contribution reports….which I assume the opponents will be using in their research.

      To make the schemes work, however, the Patrick plan will probably have to lift the cap on the number of charters and make it much easier for them to be created….sidestepping any need for approval or cooperation with the school district in which they are located.

      They might also want to adopt Sen. Campbell’s proposal to exempt these schools from having to meet various testing, etc. standards,

      Of course, the first goal is to get vouchers. Once they have done that, they can then come back in future sessions to add on to the package and make it even more attractive to those who interest in education is not the education of children but rather the making of a buck.

      • SpiritofPearl

        Ted Cruz says school choice is the civil rights issue of our time. Shameless.

  • John Bernard Books

    To all my dem friends…
    “What we do know, despite assertions to the contrary, is that voter fraud is a problem, and both sides of the political aisle should welcome a real investigation into it — especially since the Obama administration tried so hard for eight years to obfuscate the issue and prevent a real assessment. ”
    http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/01/25/john-fund-and-hans-von-spakovsky-why-trumps-probe-voter-fraud-is-long-overdue.html

    I won……