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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick doubles down on school choice fight

Days after a House hearing in which lawmakers gave the issue skeptical treatment, Patrick made clear private school choice topped his list of legislative priorities.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick offers a preview of the 85th legislative session at a Dallas Chamber of Commerce event at the Belo Mansion on Oct. 20, 2016.

*Clarification appended

DALLAS — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick doubled down Thursday on his push for private school choice legislation next session, vowing to fight for however long it takes to pass it and applying pressure to a Texas House that has shown less appetite for it.

Patrick made clear private school choice topped his list of legislative priorities as he detailed them here three days after a House hearing in which lawmakers from both parties gave the issue skeptical treatment. Private school choice programs, which Patrick unsuccessfully pushed for last session, use taxpayers dollars to help parents send their children to private or religious schools, or educate them at home.

"I intend to fight for school choice session after session after session," Patrick said, addressing a Dallas Regional Chamber luncheon. "And it's not going to hurt public schools. It's going to make them better."

The issue is shaping up to be a major point of debate in the next session, with some lawmakers arguing the focus should instead be on fixing the state's public school finance system. Talking to the same crowd last month, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said a recent court ruling upholding the system "was not a license to do nothing." 

At a hearing Monday, members of the House Public Education Committee offered a less-than-enthusiastic reception to private school choice proposals, which critics say would divert tax dollars from struggling public schools to private schools. One idea being floated by private school choice proponents is Education Savings Accounts, a program under which Texas would directly give taxpayer money to parents to spend on private education expenses including homeschool materials.

Some of the most vocal anti-voucher House lawmakers won't be around during the next session, however, either because they have already lost re-election or are retiring. That could create more of an opening for Patrick, who has sought to get school choice passed since his days as a state senator, when he chaired the Education Committee. 

Patrick addressed head-on the arguments put forward by school choice critics Thursday, insisting public schools will not experience a net loss of taxpayer dollars due to students taking advantage of the state's private school choice program. "Not net because when the student isn't there, you don't need the money," Patrick said.

"People who oppose school choice, in my view, oppose the poorest in our state, the most underprivileged in our state, because we're holding them back" from education opportunities, Patrick said.

Patrick's private school choice crusade is not new. It was a priority of his heading into the last session, when legislation passed the Senate but went nowhere in the House. On Thursday, Patrick contrasted the lack of progress in Texas with private school choice advancements elsewhere, pointing out that education savings accounts legislation has passed in five states. 

"Around the nation, they're ahead of us," Patrick said. "We have done nothing. We passed a bill last session with bipartisan support on school choice. ... We didn't even get a hearing in the House. 

Speaking with reporters after the speech, Patrick said private school choice will be palatable to the House next year if its members "just listen to the will of the people who elected you," citing polling that he said shows wide bipartisan support for school choice in most districts.

But Patrick also was candid about the uphill battle ahead, flatly replying "yes" when asked if he anticipated trouble in the lower chamber.

"We'll see what the [House Public] Education Committee looks like," Patrick told reporters. "You know, if a chairman is appointed who's anti-school choice and if members of the committee are appointed who are anti-school choice or charters, it makes it tougher. But I'm not giving up on the issue."

Responding to Patrick's comments to reporters, Straus spokesman Jason Embry said in a statement that the "House Public Education Committee held a lengthy hearing on these plans and will continue to consider how they would affect students, taxpayers and the quality of education in Texas."

Private school choice was not the only issue that Patrick raised in his speech Thursday, but it was the one he spoke most extensively and emphatically on. He also said he is focused on reducing property taxes, proposing that the state cut the rollback rate from 8 percent to 4 percent. The rollback rate is the threshold of growth above which a local government must notify taxpayers. 

Looking to the next session, Patrick continued to push for border security as well as increased support for the state's police officers, repeating his call for the state to fund rifle-resistant bulletproof vests for all officers. The lieutenant governor also reiterated the need for legislation that would block transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, not backing away from a fight that has landed other states in national headlines and angered business leaders.

"It's not about transgender [people], it's not about discrimination," Patrick said. "It's about protecting women." 

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed for border security in his speech, not more border security funding.

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Politics State government Dan Patrick Texas Legislature