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Senate Hearing Tackles Vouchers, School Choice

In a preview of a likely battle in the upcoming legislative session, state lawmakers on Friday heard testimony on school choice programs, including vouchers that would allow students to use public money to attend private schools.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, at the "How to Pay for Public Education" panel at The Texas Tribune Festival, Sept. 24th 2011.

In a preview of a likely battle in the upcoming legislative session, state lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee on Friday heard testimony on school choice programs, including vouchers that would allow students to use public money to attend private schools. 

Pointing to the experiences of states like Florida and Indiana, school choice proponents argued that the competition fostered by voucher programs would improve the quality of students' education and bring savings to the state. In addition to increasing the options for parents and creating a better marketplace for teachers, they said, such reforms improve traditional public schools by challenging them to attract and retain students.

The advocates got questions, primarily from Democratic state Sens. Royce West of Dallas and Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, on how state accountability measures would apply to private schools accepting state funds, whether families could afford tuition costs above state vouchers and how effective the competition would be if public and private schools were not operating on a level playing field (private schools could choose which students to accept).

When asked how accountability would work under a voucher program, Matthew Ladner, a fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said it was important to remember that school choice was "an opt out of the public school system instead of an extension of the public school system into the private school." 

Private schools operate under a bottom-up rather than a top-down accountability system, he said. "Parents can pick up and leave" if they feel their children aren't being adequately served, he said. 

Joe Bast of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, among several national witnesses at the hearing, detailed a voucher program he called a "taxpayer savings grant" that he said would result in a savings to the state of $2 billion over the next biennium by giving about $5,200 to each student to attend private schools. He estimated that just under 7 percent of students would take advantage of it. The greater demand for private education would help increase teacher pay, he said, and result in better productivity in public schools. 

Any gap between the cost of tuition and what students received from the grant could be made up with philanthropy or scholarships, Bast said. A bill that would have enacted a similar program — authored by Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, who lost his runoff election in July — did not pass during last year's special session. 

State Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who is one of two likely candidates to chair the upper chamber's education committee next session, led the hearing. A supporter of school choice, he told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that "this was the year" to pass laws enacting it, saying that it would be "the photo ID bill of this session."

Amid upheaval in the state’s public education system after 2011’s budget cuts, the rollout of a new accountability system, a school finance lawsuit linking school choice to efficiency and a national trend toward such reforms, the 83rd Legislature may prove fertile ground for such legislation.

Aside from Miller's attempt last session, the last real push lawmakers made to pass private school vouchers was in 2007. It failed in part because of opposition in the Senate, which now has a more conservative makeup. 

Four Republican senators — Steve OgdenChris HarrisMike Jackson and Florence Shapiro — have stepped down and been replaced by social conservative members of the House — Charles SchwertnerKen PaxtonKelly Hancock and Larry Taylor. A fifth, Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, lost his runoff in July to Tea Party-backed emergency room physician Donna Campbell. And a sixth incumbent, Davis, has a tough general election contest against Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth.

Though Texas has instituted many popular conservative policy reforms, from abortion sonogram to voter ID, vouchers are a hold-out. More than 30 states, including Louisiana, Florida and Indiana, have passed versions of laws allowing the use of public money to fund private education.

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