- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Legislature got its first taste Thursday of what should be a long and contentious debate over school voucher plans that supporters say promote free-market efficiency via “school choice” but that critics argue will drain funding from the state’s cash-strapped public education system.

A series of proposals championed by powerful Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick would let families get state funding to remove their children from struggling public schools and send them to private schools, including religious institutions.

The idea is among the most divisive lawmakers will tackle this session, and made its debut at an hours-long meeting of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Donna Campbell presented a bill that would allow 60 percent of current state per student education funding - worth about $5,200 annually - be used to cover a student’s private-school costs. She said the rest would flow back into the state budget, saving Texas more than $500 million by 2020.

“It’s about recognizing that education is not just about more buildings, buses, more bureaucracy,” said Campbell, a tea party favorite from New Braunfels. “Education really needs to be about people.”

Campbell said taxpayers’ subsidizing parents’ ability to choose would encourage public schools to improve or risk losing funding, fostering positive educational competition.

Some Republicans on the committee worried about a lack of accountability since private schools aren’t required to meet the same academic standards as public ones. Others expressed concerns about state funding allowing “government overreach” into private schools.

Democrats, meanwhile, said public schools in many parts of the state struggle because they aren’t adequately funded, and Campbell’s plan would only make the problem worse.

“Our dollars that we send to the public school system are not always efficiently spent,” Campbell countered.

The panel also heard a plan by Houston Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt that would create a non-profit where businesses could donate funds to allow families who couldn’t otherwise afford it to send their children to private schools. Qualifying families could have annual incomes of up to $80,000.

“I don’t know too many ‘have-nots’ who come from families that make $80,000 a year,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat. Bettencourt said that would allow “middle and low income” Texans to qualify.

Patrick waited behind dozens of other testifiers to personally endorse voucher plans before the committee - and even snapped a grinning selfie. Among others the committee heard from was former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican who argued that school choice shouldn’t be just for the poor since wealthy Texans are taxpayers too.

But advocates for traditional public schooling decried vouchers and related scholarship plans, saying they were more about enriching private schools than helping poor families.

“The vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated in public schools, and their schools will suffer should the Legislature vote to siphon tax dollars to help a few kids pay tuition at private schools,” Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said in a statement.

Despite the divisions, Thursday’s bills should easily clear committee and head to the full Senate. Patrick controls the flow of legislation there, meaning they are likely to be warmly received.

However, both chambers failed to pass voucher and scholarship plans last session, despite high-powered GOP support. The staunchest opposition came in the House, where Democrats and rural Republicans teamed up to approve a resolution declaring that public money should remain with public schools.


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