Proposed bill would expand Texas' school choice program, allow private schools to get state funding

January 8, 2013 8:31:18 PM PST
School funding isn't the only school-related issue Texas lawmakers are facing in the new legislative session. There's also a proposal that would give you more options when it comes to where your children go to school, and that could get help get them into private schools.

It's not as simple as ripping up your tax bill and spending it on private school tuition instead, but it is a plan that could eventually subsidize private and religious schools with public dollars.

Kids in Louisiana have a choice yours don't have here in Houston. Tax dollars are paying tuition at private Catholic schools as part of that state's voucher program. It's a way to get students out of failing schools there and into a different option.

"How did that feel, to send your son to a failing school?" we asked parent Laeisha Burras.

"It's a horrible feeling," she said.

Houston State Sen. Dan Patrick is tired of watching other states get ahead of Texas when it comes to school choice.

"You as a parent watching this interview ought to have the right to send your student to any school you want -- bottom line. People pay for this," Patrick said.

With the legislature now in session, Patrick is set to roll out his plan to create the nation's largest school choice program.

"The way to improve public schools is competition, and when I hear someone say 'You know what? I want everybody, I want everybody,' that should worry people," he said.

But former State Rep. Scott Hochberg doesn't agree.

"Show me where that theory has proven out. We have one of the largest charter school systems in the country. We 60,000 kids mostly concentrated in urban areas, so its effect is greater there," Hochberg said. "If that was what was going to be what it took to fix public education, it would already be fixed."

Hochberg just left the legislature after decades of recognition as one the state's education experts.

"What the state is obligated to do is create a system of schools that works the best for the most kids. That's what we have an obligation to do, and if you don't want to participate in that system, that's fine, but that doesn't mean my tax dollars follow you," he said.

If Patrick's plan passes, you wouldn't just stop paying property taxes and instead pay private tuition. That's too simple. Instead, Patrick's plan would give any Texas company a tax break for donating to a state-administered private school scholarship fund. Needy parents and schools would then apply to the fund for scholarships. As many as 50,000 to 100,000 Texans could eventually get them.

"Why not focus this plan entirely on fixing the public school system alone in Texas?" we asked Patrick.

"Well that's what I am doing," he said.

"But you're fixing it by letting people leave it," we said.

"No," he replied.

But lawmakers haven't gone for similar plans in the past, and school districts aren't exactly happy about diverting funds they now get and giving them to private schools.

"I think we need to put more money into public school first, I do. Public, meaning charter, so I'm not saying under any circumstances that we should take money and put it into private school," Houston ISD trustee Paula Harris said.

HISD is one of dozens suing Texas for more money. The case hasn't been decided, but could force the state to give billions more back to public schools, making it a tricky time to propose this plan.

Patrick isn't worried.

"Less than one or two percent, so all these people that say you're destroying public education, give me a break will you," he said.

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