Updated, Friday, 2:09 p.m.:
State Sen. Donna Campbell and Land Commissioner George P. Bush were among the speakers who addressed a gathering of school choice supporters Friday just outside the Texas Capitol.
The crowd filling the south steps of the Capitol included students, educators and other school choice advocates donning yellow scarves and holding signs with messages like "Choice Means Hope."
Campbell led them in a chant — “When I say school, you say choice! When I say child, you say voice!” — before giving brief remarks stressing lawmakers’ moral obligation to improve the public education system.
That students don’t have an equal opportunity to high-quality schools is “a tragedy created by governments,” said Campbell, R-New Braunfels.
“We don’t have to have these restraints,” she said, citing regulations that keep students at campuses within the geographic boundaries of their neighborhood and prevent the state from supporting parents who want to send their children to private schools.
Bush, who recently took office as the state’s land commissioner, said he would use his new platform to advocate for education reform.
Too often school choice is viewed as “anti-public school, anti-teacher,” when the opposite is true, he said.
“I believe that when we give parents choice, we give students a chance,” he said.
Rally participants also heard from parents and students, including Sterling Griffith, a child actress enrolled in Connections Academy, a full-time virtual school operated through the Houston Independent School District.
She said the convenience of online classes ensured she didn’t have to choose between her education and her career — and helped her avoid the bullies and other distractions that can come with attending school with other students.
The event, organized as part of National School Choice Week and intended to support a variety of measures that would increase flexibility in the school system, comes amid a push to pass legislation that would direct state dollars to help parents to send their children to private schools.
Original story, Jan. 29, 2015:
As pressure mounts for Texas lawmakers to pass a private school voucher program, educators, parents, students and other advocates will gather Friday at the Capitol for what's being billed as the state's largest-ever school choice rally.
The event is part of National School Choice Week, which has included dozens of events in states across the country. It comes two weeks into a legislative session in which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, has renewed efforts he began as a state senator to create a publicly financed scholarship fund to help low-income parents send their children to private schools. State Sen. Donna Campbell, the New Braunfels Republican who is carrying the 2015 scholarship bill, is set to speak at the rally, which begins at 10 a.m.
The coalition planning the event includes a number of education and business-oriented advocacy groups, like the Texas Charter Schools Association, the Texas Institute for Education Reform, the Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Business Leadership Council. It also includes organizations with an explicit political bent, like Americans for Prosperity and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Many of the rally's attendees will be young students — attending as part of their school day.
Four schools in the Austin area will be sending their students to the rally, said Dioceses of Austin spokesman Christian Gonzalez, adding that he expected at least one school from each of the state’s 14 dioceses to participate.
Gonzalez said the Texas Catholic Conference extended invitations to all Catholic schools in the state encouraging them to participate in the rally. He added that whether to attend was left to school administrators.
Parents at the Cathedral School of Saint Mary in downtown Austin received notice earlier this week that students in fifth through eighth grade would be going to the event, said Patrick Sutton, whose has two children there.
Sutton said when he learned more about the event, he was “pretty perplexed and upset” that students would take part in it as a school activity because of its political overtones.
When he asked for clarification from school administration, Sutton said he was told his fifth-grade student could stay behind while the rest of the class attended.
A call to the school was not returned.
Randan Steinhauser, a spokeswoman for the coalition organizing the event, said it was not being held in support of a specific bill — and that its participants, coming from a variety of backgrounds including charters and traditional public schools, don’t all favor the same policy proposals.
But she added that a so-called opportunity scholarship — along with the expansion of charter schools and increased mobility for students in traditional public schools — would be among the measures many there would support.
In the 2013 legislative session, the Texas House quickly blocked attempts to pass a private school scholarship program when members overwhelmingly passed a budget amendment banning public education money from going to private schools. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has since become a target of various conservative groups that want to see school choice reforms.
Following the rally, Steinhauser said she expected a “very heavy advocacy day at the Capitol,” with various groups of attendees meeting with lawmakers to discuss their agendas for the legislative session.
“I’d say that we are definitely going to make sure we stop by Joe Straus’ office," she said.
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Business Leadership Council was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2013. See a full list of Tribune donors and sponsors here.