The prospects are dim for legislative proposals creating tax incentives to help public school students pay for private school, but that did not dampen the fervor of “school choice” supporters at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday.
“I realize the mountain is very high, and I realize we’re going to need a lot of prayer from everyone who has been in front of us today,” Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said after several religious leaders spoke in favor of his private school legislation, Senate Bill 23.
The Texas House dealt Patrick’s legislation a crushing blow last week when members voted overwhelmingly for a budget amendment prohibiting the use of state dollars for private school vouchers or scholarships. If it remains in the budget bill, the prohibition might not technically preclude Patrick’s private school proposal, but it did send a clear message from the lower chamber.
Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst endorsed the scholarship proposal early in the legislative session, but Patrick acknowledged Tuesday that the idea might not be ripe.
“These are big, bold ideas. Sometimes you need a session to plant a seed,” Patrick told a roomful of parents and students who wore Superman T-shirts in homage to the school choice documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ”
SB 23 would provide a tax credit to businesses that donate to a private school scholarship fund. A business could defray its entire franchise tax obligation by making the contribution, but the total tax credits granted for all businesses would not exceed $100 million for the biennium.
The scholarship would be available to students who are considered at risk of dropping out of school or whose family income is less than 200 percent of the threshold for the free and reduced-price lunch program, which amounts to about $85,000 for a family of four. Students in low-performing public schools would be prioritized.
Patrick estimated that 10,000 students a year could receive scholarships of no more than $6,000 apiece.
“This is not an attempt to pass judgment against our public school system nor its teachers,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. “It merely recognizes that a family’s educational choices are limited by its economic means.
“How could any of us look these parents in the eye and say that their children should be denied an opportunity of a better future simply because the system we have now, which in many cases has failed, is the only option we’re going to allow them?” DiNardo added.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, questioned whether the scholarship program would actually help impoverished families because private school tuition often exceeds the amount of the scholarship and there is no transportation assistance to help students get to private schools.
“Students who truly come from poor families would not be able to use this scholarship,” Davis said.
Forty percent of private schools in Texas charge $6,000 or less, according to the Texas Association of Non-Public Schools. Elementary school tuition typically runs much lower than private high school tuition, which averages $12,000 to $13,000.
Critics of the legislation said the scholarship was a backdoor voucher program that would “launder” public dollars through a nonprofit group with little oversight.
“You can call it a scholarship program, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, smells like a duck, it’s a duck. And (SB) 23 smells like a duck,” said Lorie Barzano, who leads the Coalition to Strengthen Austin Urban Schools.
The folks clad in Superman T-shirts came out in support of a separate measure, introduced by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, that would create a different funding mechanism to help public school students pay for private school.
Campbell’s bill would reimburse private school tuition up to 60 percent of the cost of the state’s per-student funding, or about $5,000. She estimated that the state could save $1.5 billion over the first five years of the grant program.
“This may be deemed as just planting the seed, but it needs a lot of watering,” Campbell said.
A House bill similar to Campbell’s was also up for consideration in committee Tuesday.
The committees did not vote on any of the bills.