Lawmakers May Push for School Vouchers
Election Day is a week from today. State elections will, at least in part, determine the Texas legislative priorities for the 140-day session that begins in January. This week, KUT is previewing the issues of note: today it’s public education.
Two years ago, the Republican-dominated state legislature was determined to balance the budget without raising taxes, so lawmakers cut state education funding by more than $5 billion. School districts are suing, but a ruling may not be issued in time for lawmakers to overhaul the system in the regular legislative session.
That leaves room for a different matter to dominate the education policy discussion: school vouchers. Those are often tuition certificates issued to families, allowing them to reallocate their child’s share of public education funding to another school, including private schools. State voucher programs sometimes target students from families with low incomes or disabilities. School voucher programs already exist in thirteen states, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an organization founded by American economist Milton Friedman to promote school vouchers and charter schools.
Republican State Sen. Dan Patrick, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, took invited testimony in August from Matthew Lander, a policy adviser with a pro-voucher group in Florida called the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
“Texas has clearly been a leader in education reform, but in this area, it is not at the forefront,” Lander said.
But that could change. Patrick is a vocal supporter of school vouchers. He was appointed to the committee chair by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who sets the legislative agenda for the Senate. And Gov. Rick Perry told the Texas Tribune in August that market principles applied to public education could provide options for children in failing schools.
“I’m for competition in our public schools,” Perry said. “I don’t know why anyone shouldn’t be for competition in our public schools. The way it exhibits itself in a lot of different ways. The idea that we shouldn’t have that conversation is a bit foreign to me.”
Perry wouldn’t say whether he would declare school vouchers to be an “emergency item” in the 2013 session, which could fast-track it through the legislative process. Supporters say it has many advantages, including saving the state billions of dollars. That’s because the voucher would be worth less than the cost of educating a student, leaving money in the system for students who remain. But vouchers remain extremely divisive.
“Parents have a right to a public school education. They do not have a right to a private school education,” said Louis Malfaro with the Coalition for Public Schools, an organization that has been fighting against school vouchers in Texas since 1995.
“To have this sort of sideshow around a few kids getting to bail out of the system or take their ticket and go somewhere else, and imagine that’s going to address in any way the major challenges facing schools in this state, it’s a distraction at best, and at worst it’s an abdication of responsibility,” Malfaro said.
But voucher programs are growing across the United States, ten years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a voucher program in Cleveland. And depending on who wins the presidential election, they could expand farther. President Obama has supported education polices like charter school expansion and teacher evaluations tied to test scores, but he has not endorsed school vouchers. Mitt Romney has, and has vowed to free up federal education dollars so that parents could spend it on any school they choose, even if it’s outside the public education system.