Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional testimony.
Maria Aberra put on her red school uniform shirt with the Texas emblem like she does every morning — but instead of heading to her charter school, she drove 20 miles with her mom Tuesday to the Capitol to testify on school choice.
The 15-year-old Priority Charter School student wanted legislators to know that she wants Texas to make it easier for her and her siblings to transfer schools. She had to transfer from her local public school when her family moved from Round Rock to Cedar Park.
"As much as I like my school I'm currently in, I feel like there's some stuff I would prefer to have at other schools," she said.
She spoke as the Senate Education Committee debated "private school choice," a fight ostensibly about whether to allow public funds to go to private schools — but Tuesday morning, the debate focused in large part on the right way to educate millions of black and Hispanic students like Aberra in Texas schools.
In a hearing that went for more than seven hours and saw more than 150 people signed up to speak, the committee heard public testimony Tuesday for the first time on Senate Bill 3, which would create two public programs to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling expenses. According to the Legislative Budget Board's fiscal note on the bill, Taylor's legislation would cost the state a minimum of about $90 million and a maximum of about $330 million in general revenue in the next two years.
Dallas Democrat Royce West was one of two senators present Tuesday opposing the bill, arguing it would defund the public school system. “To the extent we decide we want to take resources out of a system that’s inadequately funded right now, I’m just against that,” he said.
When Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said to West that the hearing wasn't on school finance, West responded: “I think it’s inextricably intertwined.”
Advocates on both sides argued they knew what educational system was the best for families, and they deployed competing numbers to prove it.
School choice advocates brought in experts from across the country to roll out statistics from other states that had implemented private school subsidies — to show that they made parents happier, test scores higher, and students less likely to end up in criminal activity. Civil rights and teacher organizations opposing the bill cited different studies, showing subsidies in other states caused students to score lower on tests and leave school choice programs in droves.
“Almost all credible research indicate private schools that take vouchers do not perform better than students in neighborhood schools,” said Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association.
With data flying on both sides, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, chided one expert who cited studies he said showed private school choice was harmful to students. “I certainly hope you’ve been characterizing these accurately in this committee,” he said. “At best, there’s disagreement with what you’re saying.”
Much of the debate revolved around opposing definitions of crucial terms. School choice advocates argue parents hold private schools accountable by deciding to leave schools they dislike. Their opponents say the state should be the arbiter of accountability and that competition is not appropriate in the education sector.
Each side argued they had the support of black and Latino communities.
"The Latino community stands to benefit greatly from these improvements, and it is no surprise that they are strongly in support," said Jorge Lima, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a conservative national grassroots organization that connects Latinos with elected officials. "More than any other demographic, Latinos believe in the American dream. They believe the American dream is comprised of two main things: hard work and education."
After the first part of the hearing, a coalition of Latino and black activists rallied outside the Capitol to disagree with that claim, calling private school subsidies a "civil rights issue."
Private school vouchers, they argued, were created to defund public schools and reverse the progress of the civil rights movement.
"Maybe if they spent more time inside a classroom rather than defunding it, they'd learn a valuable history lesson," said Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat. "Vouchers were developed after Brown v. Board of Education as a tool to avoid desegregation, designed to divert public dollars from schools that were forced to integrate to private schools that weren't under the spotlight of the public."
Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, was the only Democrat to vote for the previous legislative session's private school choice bill. He referred to himself Tuesday as a public education advocate who felt parents should have access to more choices in the school system.
In response to education advocate Charles Luke’s claim that the bill would violate the separation of church and state by directing taxpayer money to religious materials, Lucio said: “I beg to differ with all sincerity. There’s no such thing as separation between church and state. This country was founded under God.”
Waiting for the Senate committee to reconvene Tuesday afternoon, 10th-grader Aberra was not so concerned with the technicalities of school choice. She's happy at her charter school but wants a school with more options for extracurricular activities, maybe an arts program such as theater.
"I'd probably go to a public school," she said.
Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said that Sen. Royce West was the only senator present at Tuesday's committee hearing who opposed the bill.