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Unlikely allies: some homeschoolers fighting to kill school choice bill

Rural conservatives and homeschoolers are joining forces with public education advocates against Senate Bill 3, which pushes private school choice. Their state senators are not all on the same page.

School board member Corinne French and homeschooling advocate Nicki Truesdell were surprised to find themselves on the same side of the debate around private school choice in Texas.

Nicki Truesdell is a product of homeschooling and would never enroll her four younger children in a public or private school. Corrine French has spent the last five years serving on the board of a rural public school district in North Texas.

Both are terrified a "private school choice" bill will pass this legislative session.

The longtime friends say they were surprised to find themselves on the same side of an education policy fight as state senators consider a bill to give parents debit cards to pay for private school and homeschooling, using taxpayer money. The polarizing issue has brought together unlikely allies, with some homeschoolers, rural conservatives and public education advocates fighting what they see as an encroachment on their schools.

Texas senators with rural constituents are not necessarily on the same page. Several have expressed support for some version of Senate Bill 3, and the two Republican senators who voted against last session's private school choice bill are keeping mum about whether they will continue to oppose a bill that is particularly important to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Patrick has been fighting for a voucher-like bill since his first session as a state senator in 2007. Two years ago, he rallied senators to a successful 18-12 vote for a similar bill. That bill died after the more politically moderate House did not take it up for a vote.

SB 3 would create two public programs subsidizing private tuition and homeschooling expenses, with one program available to families of any income. Truesdell, a leader of a statewide grassroots group called Texans for Homeschool Freedom, has organized thousands of parents on social media to oppose any private school choice bill.

"I'm a lifelong conservative. I've voted Republican all my life. To find myself on the opposite side of the Heritage Foundation and the opposite of [U.S. Sen.] Ted Cruz — it's very shocking and concerning to me," Truesdell said.

She and the organization's more than 6,000 members fear state-funded homeschooling would ultimately take away their freedom, opening the door to regulation of their textbooks and curricula. Texas law currently considers homeschooling to be private education and imposes just a few basic regulations.

"If it's state-funded and state-approved materials, it's not homeschooling," Truesdell said.

She and about 10 others broke away from the Texas Homeschool Coalition when they realized the state's main homeschool group was vocally supporting Senate Bill 3. Jeremy Newman, the coalition's director of public policy, said the bill represents an extension of parental rights and protects homeschool students from burdensome government regulation.

French, on the other hand, is a member of the nonprofit Texas Association of School Boards, which views voucher-type legislation as a financial attack on public schools. French also does most of her organizing online, fielding emails and Facebook messages from people in her circle confused about the issue.

A board member of Valley View ISD 60 miles north of Dallas, she homeschooled her six children alongside Truesdell's kids for about 11 years. But after a divorce six years ago, she realized it would be difficult for a single parent to educate so many teenagers. She enrolled them in public schools, which meant she saw her homeschooling friend less. 

At a Halloween party at their church last October, Truesdell and French brought their kids, ran into each other, and reconnected. French had been sure her conservative friend would join many national homeschooling leaders in supporting private school choice. She avoided bringing up the topic with Truesdell, fearing a conflict. "Who likes to get into an argument?" French said.

Truesdell gingerly eased into the subject. They ended up chatting for two hours in the church, oblivious for the moment that their children were ready to head home.

"We just found it interesting that on such a divisive topic, a homeschooler and a public schooler actually did agree on this issue," Truesdell said.

Few choices in rural areas

Even if the two friends wanted to use state money for private school tuition as SB 3 intends, their location makes that difficult. Truesdell lives on the Red River in rural north Texas, between Sherman and Gainesville. One of the closest private schools to her is at least 30 minutes away. French, too, is far from any private school.

"There is no choice in Valley View, Texas," French said. "It only works for the districts that have options."

Accredited private schools are harder to find in rural areas than urban and suburban areas. Part of the problem is that the private schools in those areas are generally smaller and don't have the money to do outreach to rural families, said Laura Colangelo, executive director of Texas Private Schools Association. If the bill does become law, she predicts that more quality rural private schools will likely start to appear over time.

That worries some rural public school officials. Just southeast of Dallas, Hawkins ISD Superintendent Morris Lyon fears that if SB 3 passes, "all of sudden, we'll wake up and realize what has happened to our small rural schools."

Already, the state's school finance system penalizes school districts smaller than 300 square miles by providing them with less state money — a wrinkle in the law intended to encourage smaller school districts to consolidate.

Hawkins ISD is less than 100 square miles, and Lyon, who is also president of the Texas Rural Education Association, said, "Anything that takes away additional funding from our school system, we would be opposed to."

Hawkins ISD's state senator, Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, supports private school choice, and believes it could have a positive effect on the public school system. SB 3 would allocate a one-time payment to a student's home district once that student takes state funds for a private school or homeschooling.

"We like the way the bill leaves some funding in our public school even if the child leaves," said Hughes, who is new to the senate this year. "It's hard to argue with the proposition that a parent ought to have a choice."

Fellow freshman state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said she is waiting to see whether SB 3 will change in committee, but feels private school choice may help students with disabilities to better access services.

"We believe in empowering parents in their children's education and want our disadvantaged students to have the same opportunities as our wealthiest students," she said in a statement.

How will key senators vote?

As senators take up SB 3, eyes will be on the two Republican senators who opposed the private school choice bill when it passed the Senate last session.

If it passes committee this time, the bill would need 19 votes (with the full Senate present) to get to the Senate floor for a deciding vote. If all Democrats but one vote against SB 3, as happened in 2015, just three Republican "no" votes would prevent it from reaching the floor.

Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, said she voted no in 2015 because she felt the mechanism proposed at the time, tax credit scholarships, was too restrictive. She declined to comment last week on whether SB 3 addresses those concerns.

The other GOP 'no' vote came from state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who declined to comment last week on whether he would support a school choice bill this session. A third senator, Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, was absent during last session's vote after being in a motorcycle accident. He said recently that he has "concerns" about SB 3 not requiring additional accountability measures for private schools.

In two weeks, Truesdell and fellow homeschooling activists will head to the Capitol to explain their concerns to legislators face-to-face. The senator who represents her area, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, joined the majority of senators in voting for the 2015 bill. He declined to comment last week on whether he would support a school choice bill this session.

As one of his constituents, Truesdell said she hopes he will listen.

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Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Boards has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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