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Analysis: Does "Voucher" Label Fit the Bill?

You can slow down or even kill a piece of legislation with a single word or phrase, if it's poisonous enough.

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“Vouchers” is a loaded word in the Texas Legislature, so much so that the advocates of another proposal to get more money for private schools are policing conversations and news stories to make sure that label is not applied to their idea.

Words are important. When a group of conservatives deputized by the lieutenant governor pinned the words “Godless” and “socialistic” to Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-kindergarten plan, Abbott was quick to slap Dan Patrick’s hand. That was the start to the general airing of grievances at last week’s leadership breakfast in Austin.

It’s possible to kill a piece of legislation just by calling it the wrong thing (or the right one, if you’re the assassin). Try to gin up the votes in Texas for anything related to “Obamacare” or “slot machine” or “Trans-Texas Corridor.”

Or “vouchers.”

The new proposal in the Senate is a tax credit, backers say, and not the kind of voucher program that seems to merit automatic dismissal from lawmakers.

And it is a tax credit. Senate Bill 4, approved by the Senate and now waiting for action from the House, includes a section that would let businesses count contributions to approved scholarship funds as credits against their state franchise tax. Those funds would be used to help pay private school tuition for qualified kids. That money would never be in state coffers. The state would never write a check to the private schools on behalf of those students. And it’s not a classic voucher.

“I don’t think we’re taking money from a public school,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, when the legislation passed the Senate. “This is not a voucher bill.”

It is, however, a mechanism for giving a state benefit to businesses that will subsidize the private school educations of kids who would otherwise be going to public schools. And those businesses are using money for the scholarships that would otherwise be state tax revenues; you can argue, as some do, that money that would be going to state purposes — schools, for instance — is instead finding its way to private schools.

Others, like Patrick, call it school choice, because it allows some families to choose private school over public school, including families without the financial means to do that without state or corporate help.

Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy group, opposes the bill, and semantics play a big role in its argument: “No matter what you call it, it’s still vouchers,” the group says in an online video attacking the proposal.

This whole idea is problematic for Texas lawmakers. Years of efforts to start voucher programs have failed, whether they were statewide in scope or just pilot programs. It went from a popular to unpopular idea quickly — particularly in some of the state’s rural areas, where small school districts also serve as community centerpieces.

If you want to shoot down legislation that’s getting money to private schools — whatever your reason — labeling it as a voucher program is a good start.

“There’s lots of money that doesn’t go to the private sector,” said Jeff Patterson, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference. Patterson doesn’t believe the tax credit proposal is a voucher program. In fact, his group has opposed straight-up voucher programs, which use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition. In the tax credit program, no public money is used; instead, it diverts money that’s on its way to public accounts into scholarships. The government gives a tax credit, but never touches the funds.

The legislation got out of the Senate on an 18-12 vote that fell mostly along party lines, and it’s not clear that it would get out of the House — or even out of the Public Education Committee there — with or without the “voucher” label. Abbott told Patrick in that breakfast meeting last week that he didn’t want his pre-K bill’s fortunes tied to other legislation — like the school choice proposal.

It’s hard to tell whether opponents use the label because they want to kill it, because they just don’t like it, or both. It obviously hurts.

Patterson thinks it’s pejorative, and he has been making the rounds with lawmakers and news reporters trying to make a distinction between the tax credit program and a straight-up voucher program.

“At least the opponents should call this what it is,” he said. “I think they’re using the term as a dirty word.”

Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics State government 84th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Governor's Office Greg Abbott School finance Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate