- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Senate voted Monday to advance a contentious but potentially landmark school voucher plan that would use taxpayer funds to help parents send their children to private and religious schools instead of public ones.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and top tea party Republicans have long championed dedicating state funding to promote “school choice,” arguing that competing for students will improve struggling public schools. But efforts in previous sessions failed to clear the Senate - which this bill is now on the verge of doing.

Passed 18-12 over objections from outnumbered Democrats, the plan allows firms to donate up to half of what they would pay in state business taxes to educational nonprofits. Those groups would then provide families with scholarships to be used at private schools - up to $6,000 or about three-fourths of what the state pays per student in public education funding.

Public school students could also elect to stay put and apply for $500 scholarships for benefits such as after-school activities, tutoring and transportation.

Patrick called its “historic” passage “a clear victory for our parents, students and Texas.”

The vote was originally 17 in favor, but Horseshoe Bay Republican Sen. Troy Fraser changed his mind after it was announced. A final, largely procedural Senate vote is required before the plan heads to the House, where its road is likely to be far rockier.

“I don’t think we’re taking money from a public school,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, the plan’s sponsor, said. “The student is moving.”

Voucher proponents had backed even more ambitious plans that would funnel state funding to families who hoped to send their children to private schools, but devised the tax credit alternative to appease critics. Opponents, though, say losing would-be tax revenue has the same effect as direct state funding.

Still, the plan faces opposition in the House, where there has for years been bipartisan support to keep public money in public schools. Democrats and rural Republicans in the lower chamber have previously teamed up to oppose any form of school vouchers.

Patrick and Taylor counter that public funding should help families whose kids are trapped in poorly performing public schools but who can’t afford to move to better school districts. They say that rich Texas residents already enjoy “school choice” and that state law should help poorer residents.

Taylor said Monday that the plan was designed to help only perhaps 16,000 of the state’s 5-plus million public school students.

Critics also worry that too much scholarship money will go to families that aren’t really impoverished - qualifying households can earn up to about $80,000 annually - and that private schools don’t have to meet the same academic standards as public ones, which follow state rules on standardized testing and other accountability measures.

“Texas simply can’t afford to pay for two separate school systems, one public and one nominally private but subsidized by the state,” Charles Luke from the advocacy group Coalition for Public Schools said in a statement. “The first accountable to taxpayers and the second not accountable.”

Thirteen states have instituted some form of voucher plans, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Experts are divided on whether students in states that have such programs academically outperform youngsters in states where they don’t.

Opponents also note public schools are still reeling from $5.4 billion in cuts to classrooms approved by the Legislature in 2011, which prompted more than 600 school districts statewide to sue and a state district judge in Austin to declare state funding inadequate and unfairly distributed between rich and poor areas of Texas.

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