At Education Panel, GOP Pitches Private School Choice

At a marathon hearing of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, GOP senators debated how, not whether, to give Texas families taxpayer money to pay for private, religious or home schools.

The Senate Education Committee interim hearing at the Texas Capitol Aug. 16, 2016.

Republican state senators bolstered their case for a private school choice program Wednesday during a marathon hearing of the Senate Education Committee, debating not whether to help Texas families pay for private, religious or home school but how.

Many GOP lawmakers appeared sold on a relatively new concept passed by a handful of states called education savings accounts, or ESAs, with which the state would give taxpayer money directly to parents to spend on virtually any education-related expense. Under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's leadership, the Senate last year approved a different private school choice scheme, tax credit scholarships, but it died in the House, where rural lawmakers have long been wary of such proposals.

Many Democratic committee members attempted to tear down arguments for any kind of private school choice program, saying that ESAs in particular lack sufficient oversight and divert money away from struggling, underfunded public schools. But they were up against an army of lobbyists, advocates and experts invited to testify by the GOP-chaired panel. They spent hours at the front end of the hearing presenting studies and figures debunking specific counter-arguments. Opponents were made to wait until the end of the hearing to speak; it continued late into Wednesday afternoon.

Advocates told the panel that private school choice programs do not harm public schools or lead to an exodus of students but empower families to choose a better option for their children. Officials representing private and religious schools said the state could easily cover yearly tuition at most of their member institutions, which amounts to roughly what the state spends on every public school student each year.

And there are plenty of slots open — and schools — to meet demand, they said. A University of Arkansas professor testifying on behalf of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative, Austin-based think tank, told the panel he’s found that private school choice programs improve graduation and crime rates and test scores — both for the students who participate in them and those “left behind” in traditional public schools. ESAs are the best way to get there, he and many advocates told the panel.

In anticipation of Wednesday’s full-court press, private school choice opponents held a pre-emptive news conference Monday where they said ESAs and other schemes are putting “lipstick on a pig" — the pig being private school vouchers, which have been unsuccessful in Texas.

“It doesn’t matter what we call it,” said Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said at Monday's news conference. “These programs, by their sheer design, will take money away from our public schools, and our public schools continue to be woefully underfunded and our teachers continue to be underpaid.”

Their consideration is “a distraction from the real problem,” he said.

Thomas Ratliff, the Republican vice chairman of the State Board of Education, suggested that any form of school choice is a bad idea with public charters lagging behind public schools in test scores, graduation rates and financials.

Vouchers and ESAs are similar, although ESAs are larger in scope in that they can be used to pay not only for tuition but also for tutoring and instructional materials. Several GOP senators and advocates praised ESAs Wednesday for the flexibility they provide to families.

"ESAs are a means that justify the end," said Sen. Donna Campbell R-New Braunfels.

Several times Wednesday, Campbell lamented that the private school choice issue is partisan, saying it is really about improving outcomes for poor children. She and other private school choice proponents acknowledged Wednesday that wealthy people have school choice because they can move to the district that works for them and said that private school choice is really about helping less-fortunate families. 

But the ESA program one prominent school choice group is pushing would be open to everyone, with no income limits on who can apply, unlike those enacted in other states. Of the five that have enacted ESAs, Nevada appears to be the only with no such restrictions. But its program has yet to be enacted because of an injunction during an ongoing legal challenge in state court.

Scott Hammond, a Republican senator from Nevada who championed the ESA legislation, addressed the panel Wednesday and said there has been an overwhelming demand for the program, with more than 7,000 families who have applied.

But "we really don't know if it's going to work or not because you haven't implemented yet?" Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, asked him.

"I guess that's subjective. I believe wholeheartedly that it will work," he replied. "We have too many people who would like to see it succeed not to see it succeed, to be honest with you."

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