Voucher Bill Hits Legislature, But Don't Call It a Voucher Bill, Even If It Is

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Last week, Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio apparently reneged on his commitment to file a school voucher bill. Lucio's flip-flop not only killed any pretense of bipartisanship with this controversial measure, but it left Sen. Dan Patrick, head of the Senate Eduction Committee, scrambling to find someone else to file a voucher bill by last Friday's deadline.

Patrick didn't have to look far. While Lucio was denying that any "Business Tax Scholarship" program was in the works, Sen. Ken Paxton, a Republican out of McKinney, filed a bill that will allow Patrick to confront what he's called the "civil rights issue of our time."

According to Paxton's SB 1015, businesses will be able to redirect up to 75 percent of their franchise tax toward a potential scholarship program, set to serve students who are "educationally disadvantaged" or who are currently enrolled in school districts whose rating "reflects unacceptable performance." If applicable, it includes the option for businesses to direct up to 75 percent of their premium tax liability instead.

"The bill requires that educationally disadvantaged students receive top priority for scholarship consideration," Sen. Paxton's wrote to Hair Balls. "I filed similar legislation in the Texas House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to find ways to provide better education opportunities for our children."

Despite supporters' insistence that such legislation can't be considered vouchers, it's clear that the senator's bill is but a sly attempt at injecting vouchers into the state's educational system.

"This idea's been floated for much of pre-session ... but it's an old, recycled idea that needs to hit the scrap heap," Rob D'Amico, spokesman for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told Hair Balls. "This is a voucher in another guise. Regardless of where they say the money's coming from, in the end you're taking money from public education and putting it into private schools that aren't held accountable for taxpayers."

Indeed, Patrick has been discussing the potential for vouchers since at least last fall, and has claimed that they would be one of his priorities. However, between Lucio's pivot and the fact that it took until the final week to file the language, it appears the momentum for passing such legislation has sputtered.

"I think there's been decrease in [voucher] momentum," said Dax Gonzales, communications manager with the Texas Association of School Boards. "It took to very last week of filing to get it there, which to me indicates it was kind of hot potato -- no one really wanted it. ... I think you see people pulling back from this notion of diverting public funds."

Interestingly, Paxton filed a nearly identical bill while in the House in 2003, with his most recent attempt coming in 2011. Both bills, like every expansive voucher bill in the interim, failed. This one doesn't seem to have much chance, either. Between House Speaker Joe Straus's doubts about mustering support from his (distinctly rural) Republican colleagues, to the fact that Gov. Rick Perry's former education commissioner, Robert Scott, recently noted that vouchers provide a "potential for fraud [that] is incredible," Patrick's pet project seems to have little chance to move from rhetoric to reality, regardless of what he calls it.

"Just call them vouchers," Gonzales said. "Keep it simple. Other groups just call them vouchers, and like a recent op-ed said, a voucher is a voucher is a voucher. Regardless of the delivery mechanism, it still accomplishes same goal."

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