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An Anti-Voucher Message, but Implications Unclear

The political sentiment behind the House’s vote against private school vouchers last week is clear. But its particulars — including whether it would ban tax credit scholarships under consideration in the Senate — are less obvious.

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Senate lawmakers on Tuesday will hear the details of two tax credit scholarship programs that House members intended to prohibit when they passed a budget amendment last week aimed at banning private school vouchers. 

Though the political sentiment behind the House's vote is clear — it sailed through 103-43 last week, and five lawmakers have since changed the record to say they intended to vote in favor — it is less obvious whether it would preclude the tax credit scholarship bills up for consideration before the Senate Education Committee.

The amendment from state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, would prevent state money appropriated to the Texas Education Agency from going to fund private schools.

During debate on the floor, Herrero emphasized that he intended for his measure to outlaw tax credit scholarship programs, as he said in an exchange with state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington.

"So a tax scholarship, or whatever you want to call it, is still public funds being diverted to a non-public school? And your amendment would seek to make sure that will not happen?" Turner asked.

"That's exactly right," Herrero said.

One of the scholarship bills up for debate, Senate Bill 23, by Dan Patrick, R-Houston, does not involve funds that would go to the Texas Education Agency. It allows businesses to apply for up to 15 percent back on their state taxes in exchange for donations to a scholarship program to help economically disadvantaged and at-risk students attend private school.

Another proposal, SB 1575, by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, takes a different approach. It would reimburse parents for a portion of the state’s cost to educate their children so they could be enrolled in private schools. That money would come from TEA funds and requires the state's comptroller and education commissioner to implement the program.

The same is true for a third bill, SB 115, which would provide vouchers for special education students. That measure, already heard by the committee, is still pending. 

DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman with the Texas Education Agency, said the agency doesn't yet know if Herrero's amendment would affect such tax credit legislation because it "did not target a specific bill."

"If a voucher bill doesn't pass, then it would be moot, but if it does they would have to go back and specify,” she said.

Opponents of tax credit scholarship programs say that whichever form they take, they fit squarely within the definition of a voucher: It is a use of public money, or what would otherwise be public money, to send students to private schools. In an interview on Friday, Herrero said that his colleagues understood they were voting in favor of an “all encompassing” ban.

“The concept of diverting funds to private schools was rejected last night,” he said. “People asked me on the floor and I made that clear over and over again, that it would prohibit any diversion of funds that would otherwise go to our public schools."

State Rep. Bill Callegari, a Houston Republican who is carrying tax credit scholarship legislation in the House, confirmed Herrero’s account. He said that when he voted in favor of the amendment, he understood that it could prohibit tax credit scholarships like the one he was advancing.

Callegari said he generally does not support vouchers, but that he thought it was important to open the tax credit concept “for discussion to see if there is support.”

“It's a little bit of a dilemma, I have to agree, but sometimes there are things that have to be discussed,” he said.

As the two chambers work out their differences on the budget, opportunities remain for the Herrero amendment to be undone. In the meantime, leaders in the Senate have not backed off from their support of tax credit programs.

Enrique Marquez, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, wrote in an email that the lieutenant governor thought the House’s vote was "very short-sighted.”

"Too often it takes too long to turn failing schools around, which is why Lt. Gov. Dewhurst wants students to be able to transfer to well-performing schools or charters if serious progress is not being made," he wrote, adding, "If public schools were perfect, this discussion would not exist. Unfortunately, public schools aren't perfect.”

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