A Voucher Showdown During House Budget Debate

The crowded House floor during debate on SB 1 April 4, 2013.
The crowded House floor during debate on SB 1 April 4, 2013.

About eight hours into the House's debate on the state budget Thursday, lawmakers in the lower chamber sent a clear signal about their position on private school vouchers.

An amendment from state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, that would ban the use of public dollars for private schools, passed 103-43 with bipartisan support.

"What this amendment basically does is say that you cannot use public money to support private institutions with vouchers," said state Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who is the House's head education budget writer.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, with the support of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, has made passing school choice reform a top priority for the session. Patrick's Senate Bill 23, dubbed "The Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program," would allow businesses to receive up to a 15 percent state tax credit to pay for economically disadvantaged and at-risk students to attend private schools, including religious institutions. There is similar legislation from state Reps. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, and Scott Turner, R-Frisco, pending in the House.

On the House floor, Herrero said he believed his ban would also apply to tax credit programs, though the language that passed appears to only prohibit state money appropriated to the Texas Education Agency from going to fund private and religious schools.

"Given the fact that we have made historical cuts to public education, I don't think we should divert public funds to private schools," he said. 

State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, was one of the 43 Republicans including Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who voted against the proposal.

"It sounds to me like you are trying to shut down basically all discussion or funding or any way to get any funding for any type of school choice," he told Herrerro during the debate.

But the most heated opposition to Herrero's amendment came from Turner, who like Simmons is serving his first term in the Legislature.

"Really to me the focus of this is the institution of education," he said. "Even if we fully fund it, even if we throw more money at it, it isn't going to solve the problem."

State Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, was the only lawmaker on the lower chamber's 10-person public education committee, chaired by Killeen Republican Jimmie Don Aycock, who opposed the measure. He declined a request to comment on his vote.

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