A rose by any other name is still a rose. And so too is a voucher. Having failed so many times in past legislative sessions to get a public school voucher bill out of the Texas Legislature and on to the governor who is willing to sign it, supporters have regrouped and developed a new strategy.
Voucher proponents have come up with new names such as “education tax credits” and “taxpayer savings grants.” In the 2003 legislative session, they were referred to as “freedom scholarships.” The latest rendition of this tired theme comes from Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston. Speaking at a news conference held at a private school back in December, Patrick called for a “tax credit scholarship” which would be funded through contributions from businesses that would then receive tax credits from the state.
So, just as death and taxes are certainties, we can be sure that several cloaked voucher bills will be introduced during this 83rd Texas Legislature. No matter how it is sliced and diced, no matter its moniker, if passed it will result in public dollars going to private schools.
Although the odds of getting such a bill to the governor’s desk remain difficult, they have never been better for proponents. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who also attended Patrick’s news conference, is a supporter of Patrick’s initiative and is a voucher supporter. Another voucher supporter is Michael Williams, the state’s relatively new commissioner of education.
Previous voucher bills have gone down in flames in the Texas House, and Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has indicated a similar fate might be in store this time. However, with a push from such powerful legislators, along with support from any number of business leaders, major financial donors, the Texas Catholic Conference, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and the Texas Association of Non-Public Schools, there has never been a better time for a voucher bill to get through. At the very least, a pilot program, as suggested by Dewhurst, could have wide appeal.
If it should come to pass that a voucher program, even a pilot program, gets through the Legislature this session and public funds begin flowing into private schools, Texas taxpayers must demand the same accountability measures that are demanded of our public schools. Patrick believes that since these would be “scholarship” funds, private schools should not have to abide by the same testing and accountability standards.
It’s accountability that is the engine driving more rigorous testing, pay for performance and other measures. When billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled into our public schools, those of us footing the bill have a right to know how our money is being spent. If any of those dollars find their way onto private school campuses, be they secular or sectarian, we should expect and are entitled to the same standards of accountability placed on our public schools.
Private schools receiving public funds should be subject to the state’s open meetings and open information laws, conduct their board meetings in public and take all votes in open sessions. All financial records, including budgets, staff salaries, vendor contracts and other data must be made available for public review. Students should be required to take all mandated state tests and the results should be published.
It simply is not asking too much for all schools receiving public funds to play by the same rules. Voucher supporters like to refer to public schools as “government schools” bogged down with bureaucratic rules and regulations and delivering a sub-standard product. If private schools funded with public money are not to be subject to the same standards, then release our public schools from the never-ending mandates, restrictions and regulations they are now required to operate under.
Play fair, it’s the American way.
Ken Zornes is executive director of Texas Business and Education Coalition, a former classroom teacher and Dallas ISD trustee. He can be contacted at [email protected]