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Long Legislative Road for Voucher Bills Begins

A preview of the looming battle over school vouchers played out Thursday as a state Senate panel considered two proposals to provide state financial support to parents who want to send their children to private schools.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens to debate on SB 8  franchise tax reform measure during Senate action March 25, 2015.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. 

A preview of the looming battle at the Texas Capitol over school vouchers played out Thursday as a state Senate panel considered two proposals to provide state financial support to parents who want to send their children to private schools.

Debate focused on how to ensure taxpayer funds are well spent at participating private schools as lawmakers traded questions over whether such plans would improve education in the state.

“I think there is not a greater accountability than someone who can make a choice by moving their business,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, the New Braunfels Republican carrying one of the bills.

For other members of the Senate Education Committee, that was not enough. 

“There’s a lot being said about how this is not just about throwing more money into education, that this is not just about money … but isn’t this just a money grab by non-public schools?” asked state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston. “Testimony seems to be suggesting that you want the money but you just don’t want any strings attached.”

After more than nine hours of discussion and testimony, the meeting closed Thursday without a vote on either of the two bills — Senate Bill 276 and Senate Bill 642.  

Similar proposals failed to make it out of the Senate during the 2013 legislative session, despite vocal backing from top elected officials including former Education Committee Chairman Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. Now lieutenant governor, Patrick has vowed to use his office to move voucher legislation, which he argues would offer an essential lifeline for students at low-performing schools whose families can't move to a better neighborhood.

In an unusual moment for a legislative hearing, Patrick dropped by the meeting Thursday afternoon to offer brief comments defending the measures.

“Giving a handful of students an opportunity for a better school in a situation where they just don’t have choice is not going to impact public education,” he said. “We aren’t trying to upend the public school system.”

Thirteen states, plus the District of Columbia, have some form of voucher law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That includes programs like those in Georgia, Mississippi and Utah, which are limited to students with certain learning disabilities. Currently, Texas does not have any kind of voucher policy.

Under Campbell’s SB 276, about $5,200 — or 60 percent — of the state funding school districts get per student would go to parents who want to send their children to private schools.

It would not require private schools to be accredited or adhere to any state accountability or curriculum standards to enroll students paying their tuition with public funds. And unlike similar proposals in previous legislative sessions, it would not limit eligibility to low-income families. 

“Here we are going to appropriate money … with no accountability whatsoever,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. “I think that’s a problem.”

Seliger also asked Campbell whether she would be comfortable with taxpayer money going to subsidize education at Muslim religious academies that could embrace anti-American ideology. 

“There are going to be some schools out there, some outliers, that I would not send my child to. That is still a parent's choice,” Campbell said.

The panel also heard testimony on SB 642, from state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, which sets up a tax credit for businesses that choose to help fund scholarships through a nonprofit organization so students can attend private schools. 

“It’s not a voucher program because there are no direct appropriations in the bill,” Bettencourt said. “It is simply a tax credit that state and local governments have used for years to promote policy.”

The committee’s chairman, Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said both measures might eventually be combined together into a single bill in a placeholder he had reserved, Senate Bill 4.

If Patrick succeeds in getting the legislation out of the Senate, it will likely encounter obstacles in the House.

Any measure will have to get through the House Public Education Committee before reaching the floor. That panel’s chairman, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has said that for lawmakers in the lower chamber to even start a conversation about private school vouchers, the state would have to be assured of adequate quality control.

“The House has always been more reluctant … about spending public dollars on nonpublic entities,” he said at a Texas Tribune event in January. “As long as there is state money involved, I want some accountability in how that is going to be spent.”

On Thursday, Campbell addressed her bill’s prospects in the lower chamber.

“My first focus is the opportunity that we have to help the children on this committee,” she said. “I will tackle one hill at a time.”

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