Education Chairman Urges Panel to Back "Noble Cause"

Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, explains his stance on SB 23 a school voucher program on April 9, 2013.
Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, explains his stance on SB 23 a school voucher program on April 9, 2013.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, delivered an impassioned plea in support of what threatens to become a beleaguered tax credit scholarship plan during a Tuesday morning hearing on his legislation.

"We are great enough in this state to do this thing if we just knock down some barriers of people who are against opportunity and competition because they always have been," he said.

Currently, those barriers likely include the Texas House, where lawmakers recently made their opposition to the issue clear when they overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state budget aimed at banning private school vouchers — which nine out of 10 members of the lower chamber's education committee voted for — and possibly members of Patrick's own party in the Senate.

"I may go down fighting on this issue, but I will never apologize for trying to reach out and help families who are desperate for their children to have the chance they never had," Patrick said Tuesday morning.

Senate Bill 23 is a critical part of the school choice reform package Gov. Rick PerryLt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Patrick, as House Education Committee chairman, have made a top priority for the session. Dubbed "The Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program," it 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. Proponents, who include an alliance of Catholic bishops, rabbis and other parochial school leaders who testified at the hearing, as well as government efficiency advocates, argue that the plan extends a much-needed lifeline to children trapped in failing schools.

For much of the morning's testimony, questions primarily came from Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who does not sit on the panel, but articulated many concerns of the legislation's opponents, including whether private schools accepting students under the scholarships would be subject to the state's accountability standards.

Patrick told the panel that the tax credit legislation had brought together "Catholics, Jews, Christians" and members of the business community to help low-income families secure the best educational opportunities for their children.

"I've taken a lot of criticism for this bill, but I'm okay with that," he said. "And I'm okay with that even if we are not victorious because this a noble cause."

Some of that criticism came from former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who now works for the education advocacy and research group Raise Your Hand Texas, which does not support Patrick's legislation. Ratliff noted that he carried the state's first charter school legislation while in the Senate in 1995.

Describing the state's 2011 cuts to public education as "draconian," Ratliff asked, "Why would we take that public money and send it to private schools for the voucher system?"

Not all representatives of religious institutions testified in favor of the legislation. Charles Johnson, a Fort Worth pastor and advocate with the Texas Baptists' Christian Life Commission, said he objected to the plan because it would violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.

"Religion is completely voluntary. As a Baptist I believe that it must always be voluntary, and this state has no right to establish or advance any religious cause. It is not the proper authority of this state or any state," he said. "The discussion in this august body ought to be how to properly and adequately fund public schools, not just those few students who are going to make their way into private school."

State Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands,  as well as state Reps. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, and Scott Turner, R-Frisco, have introduced similar proposals, all of which have not yet made it past initial committee hearings.

After testimony on Patrick's bill continued Tuesday afternoon, the committee took up Campbell's proposal. Both were left pending.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct Charles Johnson's first name and his role with the Christian Life Commission.

 

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