Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is determined to get his taxpayer-funded scholarship bill through the Senate, and he's even willing to scale it back to do so.
Patrick, with few members of the Senate Education Committee but plenty of audience, laid out Senate Bill 23 yesterday The bill, co-sponsored with Sen. Donna Campbell, R-San Antonio, would provide taxpayer-funded private- and parochial-school scholarships for low-income children in failing schools.
Patrick, in his substitute, has limited the pot of money for these scholarships to $100 million, which would be culled from donations from participating businesses. Those businesses would earn a tax credit for the franchise tax they deposit in the fund. A total of three non-profit entities would be authorized to distribute the scholarships.
Patrick frames the scholarships as a moral imperative. Wealthy kids have options, he said. "But if you're a working mom in the inner city or a grandmother or a guardian, you don't have that choice," Patrick said. "I don't know why in Texas we would say to the poor, to say to that mom, you don't have the same rights as someone who has more zeroes in their bank account."
Patrick's only opponent at the hearing was Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who has continued to faithfully attend Senate Education Committee meetings despite not being named to the committee.
Davis sparred with Patrick over whether the scholarships would take money away from public education. (Patrick was a no, Davis a yes.) And whether private schools would be willing to have the transparency of public schools. (Patrick and private school supporters said absolutely. Davis was skeptical.)
Patrick's refrain, one echoed by private schools, is that failing to approve the taxpayer-funded scholarships would leave more than 315,000 students trapped in more than 500 failing schools. Most of those students are poor and minority.
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Texas may have many failing schools, but the fact it has 500 might be because the state did not pursue Race to the Top federal funding and has not secured a conditional waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. Speculation is that a waiver remains unlikely, given recent changes to the accountability system, leaving Texas on a trajectory to have the most failing schools in the country, regardless of the number of tests. An amendment on the state budget in the House last week pledged that no Texas Education Agency funding would be devoted to vouchers or taxpayer scholarships. The taxpayer scholarship proposal, however, has money that flows outside the system. Patrick insisted taking away money from franchise taxes would not penalize public schools since it all went into general revenue; Davis said those franchise taxes are expected to fund public education.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo spoke on behalf of the Catholic bishops, expressing his conviction that vouchers could allow poor families to finally find the proper schools to serve their children.
"After four decades, Texas still has not solved the problem of equitable funding and accountability in the public schools," DiNardo told the committee, insisting he was not there to criticize public education. "Much of the problem can be linked to the arbitrarily drawn school district boundaries across the state. For too long, these boundaries have divided communities and resources. Students in wealthier districts enjoy greater resources and better schools, while children in poorer districts do not."