Texas Voucher Effort Gains Democratic Support

Published January 1, 1998

Just as the November issue of NEA Today was rejoicing that “intense lobbying” by Texas teacher union members had killed all voucher legislation last year in Austin, Lt. Governor Bob Bullock shocked anti-voucher forces by placing his powerful political clout behind a campaign for school choice in Texas.

Bullock’s action firmly buttressed the growth of an influential group of Texas Democrats who support school vouchers. These include Comptroller John Sharp, who had announced a month earlier that he, too, was open to the use of tax-supported vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools.

Bullock, who has been active in education reform efforts throughout his political career, agreed to become Honorary Chairman of Putting Children First, a nonpartisan group created last year to support school choice in Texas. In 1995, Bullock led the Texas Senate in passing a comprehensive voucher program that would have included 20 school districts with up to 10 percent of the state’s student population. The measure failed in the Texas House.

“Education is the foundation for the future of Texas and we need to make sure that foundation is strong,” said Bullock, adding that it was time to focus on students and give vouchers a try.

John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, expressed sadness at seeing “a great leader” like Bullock “fall for a quick-fix gimmick like private school vouchers rather than focusing on the critical problems facing our public schools.”

But Bullock told the Austin American-Statesman that it was not a question of the public schools or an attempt to diminish their importance. “The issue is the child,” he said.

Jimmy Mansour, chairman of Putting Children First, said that Bullock also would serve on the organization’s Legislative Advisory Board, a group of key elected officials helping to develop ideas for bringing school choice to Texas. The group plans a full-scale effort in 1999 to offer school choice to students currently attending failing public schools.

“No parent in Texas should ever be told that their child is going to be forced to attend a bad school,” declared Mansour. “Public sentiment is growing stronger on this issue every day.”

In 1997, a voucher bill came within a single vote of passing out of the Texas House of Representatives. Rep. Ron Wilson, a Democrat from Houston, had offered an amendment to legislation by fellow Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar from Laredo that would have allowed 800,000 Texas children in failing schools to receive a public education grant to attend a private school of their choice. The amendment failed by one vote. (See “Plan Proposed for Students in Failing Texas Schools,” School Reform News, May 1997, and “Texas Public Schools Won’t Accept Choice Students,” School Reform News, September 1997.)

“I believe that Lt. Governor Bullock’s leadership is going to be instrumental in the passage of parental choice legislation in 1999,” said Mansour.

Wilson, already a member of Putting Children First’s advisory board, said he was “thrilled” that Bullock had agreed to “lead the charge” for school choice after years of hearing his colleagues say that vouchers are a good idea, “but now isn’t the time.”

“Well, now is the time,” Wilson said. “It’s time to do right for all our children currently trapped in unsafe schools.”

Other Democrats were less thrilled. “He ought to join the Republican Party while he is at it,” retorted a “stunned” Rep. Kevin Bailey, according to Austin American-Statesman reporter A. Phillips Brooks.

Bullock announced last year that he would not seek a third term as Lt. Governor in 1998. His current term expires in January 1999. Comptroller Sharp is running for the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor.

Saying he was encouraged that Sharp recognized how parental choice could improve the school system in Texas, Mansour noted that a coalition of state legislators–Democrats and Republicans, white, black, and Hispanic–“are joining forces to bring accountability to all schools.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].