Senate Public Ed Chair Patrick Focuses on School Choice

Texas Senator Dan Patrick in his Houston Disctrict 7 office in Houston Tuesday, October 23, 2012.
Texas Senator Dan Patrick in his Houston Disctrict 7 office in Houston Tuesday, October 23, 2012.

State Sen. Dan Patrick has a talk radio host’s comfort with publicly aired complaints.

That has made the Republican, who hosts a daily afternoon show on Houston's KSEV-AM, an outlier in a staid Senate whose members prefer to keep their bickering behind closed doors. 

But as an upper chamber vastly changed in personality, if not politics, convenes in January, the founder of the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus has picked what some may consider an unlikely second act: crusader for public schools.

“If there's one message that I want to send, it’s that I want to champion public education,” said Patrick, the new chairman of the Senate Public Education Committee.

Whether the education community is ready to embrace Patrick in that role is another matter.

Through his chairmanship and a recent alliance with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, he has the powerful platform he once lacked. His ambitions are pinned on expanding school choice in the state’s public education system. The plan is expected to include vouchers for private schools, a policy previously opposed by every major education association in the state and many within his own party.

Patrick declined to discuss the details of his proposal, which he said he intended to announce before Thanksgiving along with Dewhurst. But he said the legislation would be broader than many might think.

"When people attack me on vouchers, I look at the word voucher as some people see it like I look at a rotary telephone. It's outdated," he said. "When we talk about choice today, it's the choice to choose schools within a district, potentially across district lines. It's charter schools. It's virtual schools. It's online learning. It's the secular and religious schools in the private sector."

Patrick has served on the committee he now chairs since his first session in 2007. During that time, he has shown an eagerness to navigate the divergent interests and complicated policy that often turns other lawmakers away from education, a quality that has earned him supporters even among those who disagree with his positions. Those who work with him have said they had to realize that Patrick’s persona on the radio is different from the person who shows up at meetings in his Capitol office or the committee room.

"It is the art of compromise with him," said Susan Kellner, the former president of the Spring Branch Independent School District board. "He doesn't lock up on positions, there is more flexibility there than you would believe."

Kellner, who stepped down in May from the school board in Patrick’s district after nine years, said she saw the senator as deeply engaged in the underlying details of education policy — and hardworking. At the height of the legislative session, she said, it was not unusual to immediately receive a response from him to a 2 a.m. text message.

That doesn't mean she is without worry about what his leadership would mean for Texas public schools.  

"With all the major issues that public education is dealing with right now, including deep financial cuts, increased expectations in testing, the growth of our student population especially in some of our more challenged populations, I'm concerned that his No. 1 priority would be vouchers," she said, "but we intend to make that case to him, and I think he will listen."

Education leaders outside of Patrick's district also share a favorable perception of the senator. Before the last legislative session, Curtis Culwell, the outgoing superintendent of Garland ISD in suburban Dallas, served with the senator on a committee that examined the state’s school finance formulas. He said Patrick’s grasp of the highly complex system impressed him, and he has come to regard the senator as a “listener.”

“While he has particular views I personally don't subscribe to,” Culwell said, “I have found him to be a pretty honest broker of divergent ideas.”

But others said Patrick showed before he became chairman that he would not encourage meaningful dialogue on the school choice issue. An August interim hearing on school choice programs heavily featured invited testimony from those firmly in the pro-voucher camp, which Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said was an indication of how the conversation would play out.

Robison, whose organization represents about 70,000 educators and school employees across the state, said the new chairman has already wasted his opportunity to champion public education when he did not stand up to fellow Republicans last year to fight cutting the public education budget by $5.4 billion. Patrick’s support of vouchers, he said, was nothing more than a scheme to drain more money from public schools.

Patrick said he was surprised at how quickly his critics attacked legislation they had yet to see. Once he presents the bill, he said, he would welcome comments about how to improve it.

So far, Patrick’s views on school choice reform have generated the most attention in advance of the legislative session. But his goals for when he returns to Austin reach further than that. He said he plans to take on questions about testing and how best to hold schools accountable that have come up during the state’s transition to a new student assessment system this spring. It was important for lawmakers to be flexible if they did not get it right the first time around, he said.

He said he was also working on a bill modeled on the school ranking system in Florida that awards campuses grades of A through F, saying that it more clearly communicated to parents how well their schools were educating their children.

All of his reform efforts, he said, were directed at improving the opportunities for Texas students, especially those trapped in failing schools — and informed by his meetings with educators, parents and administrators across the state.

“If you don't have a quality education in life, you just don't have a realistic shot of living the American dream,” he said. “And we should not rob that opportunity from anyone because tackling the problems is too controversial." 

He said his effort to pass a bill he had carried all of his three sessions in the Legislature, a 2011 law requiring sonograms for women seeking abortions, was good training in building support for challenging legislation. 

The sonogram law is one of Patrick’s most significant achievements since he won the Harris County Senate seat in 2006 with almost 70 percent of the vote in a Republican primary against two sitting House members. Observers attributed the victory to an early recognition of the conservative grassroots movement, whose power did not truly coalesce until four years later.

Once in Austin, Patrick quickly demonstrated his dogged pursuit of conservative principles — and his flair for the symbolic gesture. He became known for a Capitol news conference featuring a table piled with $1 million in cash as a prop and a successful push to have “In God We Trust” etched in the Senate chamber and "Under God" placed in the Texas pledge.

He has also had high-profile spats with fellow Republicans. This summer he irked the base he had cultivated for so long when he supported Dewhurst, a onetime rival, in his unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid against Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz.

The endorsement marked a thawing in his relationship with the lieutenant governor, who he accused of killing his bill preventing “invasive searches” by federal Transportation Security Administration agents in angry remarks to reporters at the end of the last legislative session.

A more personal sparring match came in May, which resulted in news outlets obtaining an email he sent to every member of the upper chamber saying Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, was spreading rumors about the state of his marriage. Carona denied Patrick’s claims in an equally public manner, calling him “a narcissist that would say anything to draw attention to himself.”

In the interview Tuesday, Patrick said the past conflicts were behind him and would not affect his leadership of the committee.

“What people know about me is that I'm always going to say what I think and I'm always going to stand up for what I believe is right,” he said. “You just move on, that's part of politics. There's a lot of stress and pressure, and I handle it pretty well, 95 percent of the time.”

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