Capitol rally sets the stage for school choice debate


Highlights

Hundreds of students, parents and teachers from mostly private and charter schools attended the Capitol rally.

Gov. Greg Abbot and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave their support to school choice legislation.

The Texas House has traditionally given a cool reception to school choice bills.

Gov. Greg Abbott pledged Tuesday to sign any school choice legislation that reaches his desk, adding his voice to what promises to be one of the most heated debates this legislative session.

“We know when it comes to education, one size doesn’t fit all,” Abbott told a crowd of several hundred parents, students and teachers at an annual school choice rally at the Capitol. “So why is it that government has the power to force a student to attend a school that is wrong for them?”

Those pushing for school choice legislation want state funding to help pay for education options other than traditional public schools, such as online, private or home schooling.

Opponents see it as stripping funding from traditional public schools, where the overwhelming majority of Texas children are being educated.

“It’s important to identify what we’re talking about. These are … vouchers in another name because they take money that is intended for all students and hand it over via an entitlement to private businesses not accountable to taxpayers,” said Mark Wiggins, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, which advocates for public schools.

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

School choice bills likely will be filed this week to coincide with National School Choice Week, advocates said.

For at least the past decade, the Texas House has given tepid regard to any legislation that would give public money to private schools. Some lawmakers have said that passing such legislation would violate the Texas Constitution which mandates a system of “public free schools.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has long supported school choice, told the crowd Tuesday that school choice bills this session would create education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships. The latter system was proposed last session but wasn’t advanced in the House. It would give tax credits to businesses if they donate money to scholarship programs that would send students to private schools.

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Education savings accounts — operating in five states — would give students leaving public school a debit card with about $5,600 per year, to be used on a variety of education services, including for tuition for private schools.

“This is not a war on public education. This is not a war on our school teachers or our principals or our superintendents who are doing a good job,” Patrick said. “I hear this argument from our public schools — ‘you’ll take money away from us.’ … That’s not true. It doesn’t take money from the education system because they don’t have to teach the child.”

During his remarks, Patrick also plugged the new A-F accountability system which has rankled many traditional public school proponents. The system will launch in 2018, but in preliminary grades released this month based on 2015-16 data, many traditional public schools received D’s and F’s. Public school administrators have said that the grades aren’t accurate reflections of their academic performance and see the grades as a way to advance the school choice agenda.

READ: Texas schools and districts get their letter grades from state

“We know that that system is being used to try and tell parents that their schools that are good schools are somehow actually failing schools, and, therefore, we need some kind of voucher program,” Wiggins said. “We are seeing those A-F grades definitely being used to bolster an argument that we don’t agree with.”

The Austin school district held a rally of its own Tuesday to highlight educational opportunities within the district’s schools, such as international baccalaureate curricula, theater and robotics.

“When we talk about school choice, there are a lot of entities out there who think their choice is the best,” Ken Zarifis, president of Austin’s teacher’s union Education Austin, said at the rally at Anderson High School in Northwest Austin. “That choice really is just a different philosophy of education and a different building.”

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Donning yellow scarves, most of the students, teachers and parents who attend the school choice rally each year at the Capitol are from charter and private schools.

Education savings accounts wouldn’t help charter schools, but charter school advocates have repeated calls for more funding.

Paulina Pereira, a 10th-grade student at an Austin campus of IDEA Public Schools, a charter school network, said more funding would mean that her school could have uniforms for the cheerleading team and offer band and choir classes.

“Think about us. Wouldn’t you want your child to have a better education?” she said.

Additional material from American-Statesman staff writer Forrest Milburn.



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