The last several months have provided Texans with a clear signal that school vouchers will be a major agenda item in the Texas Legislature come 2013. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst came out strongly for school vouchers, and State Sen. Dan Patrick has been charged to hammer out the details. New TEA Commissioner Michael Williams also supports vouchers. Patrick held hearings last month on various options like private school vouchers and expanding charter schools, and he has declared the subject “the civil rights issue of our time.” Rick Perry has also announced his backing of the issue.
Over the last decade, Texas has accounted for half of new public school growth in the United States. But as pointed out by the Austin American Statesman, Texas cut $5.4 billion in public education funding last session.
Although defeated routinely in Texas for the last decade or more, vouchers are now being repackaged for a new push. One of these new selling points for vouchers is that they will “save state tax dollars”. For example, one proposal would look at the actual cost of educating a student in public school, then offer that student 60% of that cost to go to attend a private school. Thus the state would save 40% on that student. This would effectively create the largest cut in public education spending ever.
One interesting aside is that the voucher debate has always been bipartisan in nature. Some of the strongest proponents have been Democrats, Ron Wilson and Henry Cuellar when they were in the Texas House, for example. Some of the strongest opponents have been Republicans, like Carter Casteel and Charlie Geren. Not to be confused with Sen. Dan Patrick, State Rep. Diane Patrick, also a Republican, is currently one of the main voices against vouchers, instead “advocating high-quality options within the public school system.” Rep. Patrick points out the lack of fiscal and academic accountability at private schools that would receive public tax dollars.
I agree with Rep. Patrick on this issue. There are tons of nuances and topics to debate surrounding vouchers, so it is futile to discuss them all here. Generally, it must be pointed out that school vouchers would make it significantly more difficult for Texas to fulfill its constitutional requirement to provide a free and equal public education for all Texas children. Every child in Texas is supposed to be guaranteed the same opportunity for a quality education. If one school is worse than another, one can argue that Texans are in violation of their own Constitution. If students and state dollars are sent to private schools, less is allocated to the public school system, and the students left behind are in worse shape. Also, a voucher may not cover the entire cost of tuition at many private schools, meaning some students (those with parents that can afford to pay the spread) would be less able to use vouchers than others. Add to that factors like location, type and other costs associated with private schools, and you find that the vouchers issue is much more complicated that simply sending a kid out of a bad school district (or saving tax dollars).
The fight over vouchers started before I entered the legislature, but I was involved in it while I was there. In 1997, I was at my desk as a freshman legislator when then State Rep. Ron Wilson and others offered an amendment to allow private school vouchers. The vote to table their motion (and reject their proposal) was narrowly defeated, meaning that the next vote would be to adopt (and allow vouchers). Because the motion to table was rejected, some panicked, assuming that Wilson’s amendment would be adopted, and Texas would get vouchers.
I got out of my chair and offered an amendment to Wilson’s proposal that prohibited any private school that took a voucher from discriminating based on academic performance, disability or other criteria (this would prevent private schools that accepted public funds from cherry-picking only the students they wanted). My amendment was adopted (Who could argue for discrimination?), and Wilson then withdrew his proposal. I was later told this is called a poison pill amendment, and for it, I got a lot of undeserved credit for “killing vouchers” that year.
The truth is that a number of anti-voucher members were away in committee meetings when the whole thing started, and their return meant the votes existed to defeat Wilson outright.
I remember that debate because it was my first real test on the microphone. Wilson was somewhat feared as a debater, and also he had evidently cold cocked Harvey Hilderbran in the Member’s lounge during a previous session. Harvey’s version was different, and since I wasn’t there, I have no clue. However, I must say that I tend to believe anything Harvey says over Ron.
Regardless, it had created this mythology around Wilson, a mythology that waspretty much shattered when Garnet Coleman called Wilson out at a Houston Redistricting hearing about this orange Lamborghini. Gotta love G.C. But the point is, I had my first debate on the House floor about vouchers, and it was against Ron. I have to thank Ron for that, as it gave me my first taste of real hard debate and taught me that it was no big deal.
Since 1997, I saw vouchers defeated in the House over and over and over. Since Democrats have been in the minority in the House since 2003, it was clearly a bi-partisan majority stopping them. Only November will tell us whether the votes still exist in the House to defeat them.
As a parent and someone who see education as the great equalizer and foundation of our individual and collective success, public education has always been one of my top priorities, both as a member of the Texas House and of the public. I have come to think small classrooms, fair pay for teachers, innovative ways to increase parental improvement, and local accountability were some of the important factors that could improve our schools. Vouchers seem like a convenient way for lawmakers to pass the buck on education and wash their hands of a core Constitutional responsibility. My thought is that if schools are bad, and some certainly are, lawmakers should step up to the plate and fix them, not walk away from that responsibility. To me, at best, vouchers might be a way to help a few kids in a bad school. The better option, and the one we are Constitutionally and morally obligated to do, is fix that school.
Charter school are also not the overall solution. Charter schools have a good role in the overall system. They provide a place for thinking outside the box, trying new teaching methods, and such. Lessons learned in the Charter system should be looked at possible solutions to be learned in the larger system. But as we have seen, particularly in the debacle of 2000-2001 when Charters were allowed unlimited growth, the lack of accountability to taxpayers and voters created horrific abuses and problems. As the legislator charged in 2001 with cleaning up the mess with oversight legislation, I can assure you we don’t want to return to that situation. Measured and incremental growth in Charter schools can be a good thing, but again, that is not the answer to failing schools overall.
Texas schools did not begin to have performance issues overnight, and there is no quick fix. Also, you can’t take $4 billion out of the system in 2003, $5 billion out in 2011, and then blame someone else. There has been a systematic underfunding of education in Texas for over a decade. It is wrong for lawmakers to pull huge amounts of money out of the system, upwards of $600 per child, and then complain at performance drops. Money does matter.