New Chair Dan Patrick is making his mark on the Senate Education Committee early, putting his goals for school choice front and center on his agenda.
The clamor over school choice will likely drown out many of Patrick's other goals for the session: expanding career and technology courses; dropping the number of required end-of-course tests; and expanding online courses.
Patrick laid out four options for choice: transfer between schools in a district; putting a child in a school outside the district with capacity; lifting the cap on charter schools; and, most controversial, passing an education scholarship tax credit.
Under Patrick's plan, which has the blessing of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the state's neediest children in failing schools could pursue a scholarship drawn from businesses willing to set aside up to a quarter of their business franchise taxes.
Texas schools don't need evolution, Patrick said. They need a revolution.
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"It is immoral to say to any student or any parent, 'You have to go to a poor-performing public school because that's your ZIP code,'" Patrick said. "How do we say to that child, 'We expect you to graduate with high honors, but you have to go to a school that is a failure.'"
The school choice tax credit has passed other states, most notably in Florida. The Texas Association of Non-Public Schools argues that moving 300,000 student off the public school rolls, via tax credit scholarships, could save as much as $6 billion.
The Texas Freedom Network was quick to point out the potential pitfalls of such a program, such as funding students already enrolled in private school; scholarship organizations controlled by lobbyists; and a cottage industry that has grown up around soliciting tax credits donations.
"Tax credits are just a backdoor voucher scheme that diverts tax dollars from neighborhood public schools to private and religious schools," said Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network. "Evidence in other states shows that these tax credits are a racket. They provide a big tax loophole for corporations and often benefit mostly well-to-do families with kids already in private schools while shortchanging our kids in public schools."