In Focus

Proposal to expand Texas public school options may be costly

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Texas schools just received a passing grade, but it's not one any parent would brag about.

Education Week is out with state rankings, giving Texas a C+. We get high marks for accountability, low marks for funding. There's no ranking for school choice options, but a controversial plan to expand options for Texas public school parents could face strong opposition.

In Austin, high-profile Republicans are intent this year on shaking up your school. State Sen. Dan Patrick is writing what could become the nation's largest school choice plan.

"Don't tell me it can't be done," Patrick said.

Patrick claims to have thousands of supporters across the state, parents who want a way out of what they view as a way out of failing public schools.

"How do we expect a student to succeed who's forced to a failing school, and why should we say to the parent, 'I'm sorry, we know your school is a failure -- it's always been a failure -- but this is the ZIP code you live in,'" he said.

Patrick points to an education bureaucracy that can't or won't close chronically failing schools and to a capped number of charter schools in Texas; some of those charters have waiting lists thousands of students long, offering little hope to those at the end of the line.

But those public schools Patrick is trying to force more competition on say they're already competing and succeeding.

"Our principals have just gone through a very rigorous marketing program at Rice, and it really makes you more of a businessperson selling your product," Houston ISD trustee Paula Harris said.

Within HISD, the state's largest school district, students can transfer to virtually any school within the district. In Spring Branch, students can attend charter schools inside district buildings.

And while HISD admits they need to open more seats in popular programs, the district plans to tell lawmakers that a state-sponsored, tax-break funded scholarship or voucher program isn't a level playing field.

"Our state constitution says that you can't use public school money for religious institutions, that's one. And B, how can you say that that's a better education?" Harris said.

In fact in Louisiana, where a voucher program started this year, courts recently said it was illegal to spend public money on private schools.

Under the Texas plan, the state would offer tax breaks to companies that donate to a scholarship fund for vouchers, a move Patrick hopes would get around any Texas constitutional concerns.

But all that combined with a legislature that's turned these plans down in the past may make it a tough sell.

"One of the things that we haven't seen evidence of is that vouchers fix public schools, that vouchers are capable of replacing public schools or that vouchers would particularly serve the people who are most disserved at the public schools," former State Rep. Scott Hochberg said.

This will not be an easy fight for either side. In other states that have fought over school choice, it's been high stakes and high dollars, millions from out-of-state interests to fight this fight.

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