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A New Run at School Choice

Despite a half-hearted attempt at the end of the 2011 legislative session, the last real grasp lawmakers made at passing private school vouchers was in 2007. But that could soon change.

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As he addressed a recent luncheon at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, state Rep. Phil King delivered a verdict on Texas public schools.

“This 40-year experiment in the state — running public education — has really been a failure,” he told a crowd of policymakers, legislative staffers and lobbyists. It has created a “dramatic bureaucracy” that keeps absorbing more money, he said, but no one is truly held accountable for the end result.

King’s statement has a more radical undercurrent than the small-government, anti-spending rhetoric that has dominated political discourse in the state for the past two years. Taken a step further, it could become a call for an end to the public school system. And amid the current political climate, that could represent the beginning of a drumbeat for private school voucher legislation during the next legislative session.

Despite a half-hearted attempt at the end of the 2011 Legislative session, the last real grasp lawmakers made at passing private school vouchers was in 2007. It failed in part because of opposition in the Senate.

But that could soon change. Amid the chaos brought to the state’s public education system by 2011’s budget cuts, the rollout of the new accountability system, a national trend toward such reforms and a rightward shift in the upper chamber, the 83rd Legislature might prove a fertile ground for school choice legislation.

Though ahead of the curve with other popular conservative policy on abortion and voter ID laws, Texas lags behind more than 30 states including Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana, which in recent years have each passed versions of laws allowing the use of public money to fund private education.

Two parties in the school finance lawsuits against the state (one brought by an organization chaired by former Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who supported voucher legislation in the Legislature) are pushing school choice. They are linking it to efficiency, arguing that a school system that does not allow the maximum amount of choice for students cannot be wisely spending state dollars. Their lawsuits do not need to be successful legally to generate a body of evidence — and more importantly, political momentum — to support a shake-up of the status quo.

At a recent luncheon at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, House lawmakers and other conservative leaders expressed support for reforms typically associated with school choice — including legislation that allowed “dollars to follow students” and further deregulation of public schools.

And voucher proponents already have a powerful ally in Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who is a potential candidate to lead the Senate Education Committee, but there has also been a dramatic reshuffling in the upper chamber, one that could expand after next week's runoff and the November general election.

So far, four Republican senators — Steve Ogden, Chris Harris, Mike Jackson and Florence Shapiro — have been replaced by very conservative House members — Charles Schwertner, Ken Paxton, Kelly Hancock and Larry Taylor. And two more incumbents are still in peril. Sen. Jeff Wentworth faces a stiff runoff challenge from Tea Party supported Donna Campbell. Democrat Wendy Davis has a general election contest against Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, in a district that leans Republican.

Among the new faces, Patrick and others might be able to find enough support for the legislation that failed in 2007.

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