While Texas lawmakers have so far proposed relatively small school choice programs, more than that may happen in this legislative session, say local observers.
Even with Republicans firmly in control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, “advancing school choice in Texas has proven enormously difficult,” said James Golsan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
In February, Gov. Rick Perry told the state Board of Education he wanted lawmakers to lift the state’s cap on charter schools and “introduce scholarship programs that give students a choice, especially those who are locked into low-performing schools.”
The legislature has been consumed with education this session, reconsidering 15 tests students must take to graduate and a court ruling state education funding is unconstitutionally small.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick (R-Houston) proposed a school reform plan including a tax-credit scholarship pilot program. The voucher-like program would give Texas businesses credits against up to 25 percent of their tax liabilities for contributions to nonprofit groups that distribute the money as scholarships for poor children to attend private schools.
In a state where, people say, everything is big, Dewherst’s school-choice proposal is relatively small. Although 16 other states now have various private school choice programs—some that have existed for twenty years—Dewhurst proposed a pilot program “because we want to show that it works first.”
Peggy Venable, Texas director of Americans for Prosperity, expects Dewhurst and Patrick to support bolder school-choice legislation when it’s filed.
“[Dewhurst] felt the burn when he was so soundly defeated in the [2012 U.S.] Senate race and is doing all he can to burnish his conservative credentials and push a conservative agenda,” she said.
Demand Will ‘Grow’ Choices
Venable said her group would support a pilot program because it would increase at least some families’ choices.
“We would be happy to support a phase-in of school choice programs,” she said. “Our private school and charter school capacity in Texas will grow relative to the demand.”
While no major school-choice bills have yet been filed, Venable said she expects there will be either an omnibus bill with several different options, or an individual tax credit or voucher amendment to another major bill.
Former state Rep. Sid Miller didn’t fault the lieutenant governor’s strategy. He’s optimistic that a limited program would grow to meet family needs.
“As the old saying goes, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at time,” he said. “You gotta start somewhere, and swallowing the whole thing just might not be feasible right now.”
A pilot program could reduce the risk of receiving a bad fiscal note by the legislature’s scoring committee, “which has certainly impacted choice legislation here,” Golsan said.
A ‘Poison Pill?’
David Anthony, executive director of Raise Your Hand Texas, called the tax-credit proposal a “poison pill.” A Texas Association of School Administrators spokeswoman told reporters the group would oppose bills that contain voucher or tax-credit measures “regardless of any other provisions in the bills that we support, as they divert critical state dollars from public schools.”
But Golsan said private school choice means opportunities for all students to have a chance at a top-quality education.
“Right now, we’re providing our lower-income students with no such opportunities,” he said. “No tax credit or voucher program is going to be a fix-all in this regard, but they would certainly be a move in the right direction.”
High Demand for Choice
While poor college students can get state scholarships, Golsan noted, “we’re lacking in that regard at the K-12 level.”
If interest in private K-12 scholarships is any indication, a tax-credit program would be extremely popular in Texas. The Children’s Scholarship Fund-Fort Worth, which granted private scholarships to 500 of the 9,000 low-income families who applied in 1999, has a waiting list of more than 1,000.
More than 101,000 students are currently on charter school waiting lists, double the number two years ago.
In the 2013 session, school choice “has as good a chance as it ever has had,” Miller said.
Image by Texas Tribune.