Voucher Issue Makes a Comeback

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s announcement that he intends to run for re-election almost got one-upped by another he made at the same time at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

He also used his speech to the Texas delegation there to make clear his intent to work with an erstwhile rival, Sen. Dan Patrick, on a key piece of education reform: school choice programs, possibly private school vouchers.

Dewhurst said it was too early to talk about the details about what form the legislation might take, but said he favored expanding parental choice in public education. In a speech to the Texas delegation Thursday, Patrick, the Houston Republican who is one of two likely picks to lead the Senate Education Committee, further laid out the case for what he called the “the civil rights issue of our time.” 

The remarks from the two senators are the latest in what appears to be a concerted effort to fire up the party’s conservative base in favor of the reform. This week Gov. Rick Perry appointed former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams — a Tea Party favorite who has spoken in favor of vouchers to lead the Texas Education Agency this week. Patrick also recently led an interim committee hearing on the subject, featuring witnesses from national conservative think-tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Friedman Foundation.

All of that has contributed to speculation about the possibility of a successful voucher bill during the next legislative session. Proponents of the legislation, who have tried to enact vouchers laws of various forms since the mid 1990s, have reasons to like their chances this time around. There’s a far-right-leaning Senate with the possible votes to suspend the tradition of requiring two-thirds approval to bring legislation to the floor, a general dissatisfaction with the performance of public schools and a vocal contingent of budget hawks demanding further frugality from state government.

But it will still be a tough fight. Despite a growing chorus of voices pushing the measure on the far right, if past struggles are any guide, state Republicans are not unified in their support for it.

Sen. John Carona, R- Dallas, has been outspoken against private school vouchers in the past. After Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, the chairman of the House Administration, opposed voucher legislation in the 2005 session, San Antonio businessman James Leninger spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to unseat him in the 2006 primary. Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, defeated former education chairman Kent Grusendorf as an anti-voucher candidate.

Along with Patrick, Sen. Kel Seliger is also frequently mentioned as a possible leader on public education issues. The Amarillo Republican said he was still learning about the various forms school choice can take, and needed more time to consider the issue before he made up his mind. Though he said there would certainly be voucher bills filed during the session — and noted the governor’s support of them — he questioned how much demand existed for such reforms.

“I don’t think it's that big of deal for that many people,” he said. “I think it's a priority for some people, but there is also a lot of very strong opposition.”