School choice plan gets lukewarm reception at Texas House hearing

Several lawmakers on Monday delivered a less-than-tepid embrace of programs that critics said would take tax dollars from cash-strapped public schools and give them to private schools.

“My concern is we don’t do something with good intentions that causes great damage,” said outgoing state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown.

More than half of the House Public Education Committee expressed concerns about school choice programs, poised to be the most contentious education-related issue in next spring’s legislative session. Last session, school choice bills made it through the Texas Senate but sputtered in the House.

READ: Are education savings accounts the new private school vouchers?

Sometimes devolving into heated exchanges with testifying witnesses, the committee on Monday heard from proponents and opponents of school choice programs, specifically tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts. Tax credit scholarships would give tax credits to businesses if they donate money to scholarship programs that would send students to private schools. Education savings accounts — operating in five state now — would give students leaving public school a debit card to be used on a variety of education services, including for tuition for private schools.

Randan Steinhauser of EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group, said that savings accounts give parents more choice in their children’s education, particularly for children stuck in a failing public school.

According to the Texas Education Agency, 239,517 students are in schools that failed to meet the state’s accountability requirements this year.

“When we are working with these parents, they are desperate for more options and it’s quite infuriating and somewhat insulting when we say parents don’t know how to make good choices for their children,” Steinhauser said. “Right now, they are in a system that is not working for their child.”

Ken Grusendorf, a former lawmaker who is now with the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that education savings accounts — which would also pay for choices such as home schooling curriculum, virtual schools, special education services — will drive competition and improve public schools.

Grusendorf and Steinhauser said that to qualify for money from education savings accounts, education providers must meet a set of requirements, holding them accountable.

Jennifer Carr Allmon with the Texas Catholic Conference said that only low-income, struggling students would qualify for tax credit scholarships.

Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, was one of the few on the committee who spoke in favor of school choice. He proposed a tax credit scholarship program last legislative session.

“I’m probably the only member of this committee that’s zoned to go to a failing elementary school. You have no right to make me send my child there,” he said to the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, who gave an impassioned testimony against school choice programs.

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Farney, who lost in the Republican primary to Terry Wilson, a champion of such school choice programs, was among those who pushed back the hardest on Monday.

She questioned the constitutionality of the programs and cited studies that showed that school choice programs in other states have cherry-picked higher-income students. Farney also said that school choice programs don’t hold private schools to the same requirements as public schools.

Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, said that his rural district barely has private schools so such programs wouldn’t help his constituents.

Rep. Harold Dutton, R-Houston, said that the state should work to fix failing schools, not propose an unrelated solution.

Thomas Ratliff, outgoing Republican member of the State Board of Education from Flower Mound and champion of traditional school districts, said that parents don’t always make the best choices for their students. He has seen parents withdraw students from high-performing traditional public schools due to misinformation.

“More choice shouldn’t be the goal. Better choice should be the goal,” Ratliff said.

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