Opposition to private school vouchers runs deep in Texas House

The people change. The politics change. But the opposition to private school vouchers in the Texas House stays the same year after year.

House members delivered an unmistakable message last week to Gov. Rick Perry and some state Senate leaders that they would block any effort to use state money — through a voucher or a scholarship program — to pay for private school.

The 103-43 vote mirrored similar budget amendment votes in 2007 and 2009 that also precluded the use of state dollars for private schools. In 2005, the House members pushed back against then-Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who tried to muscle through a voucher program.

“With all the variables out there that are always moving, the consistent vote has been no,” said state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, who voted against the Herrero budget amendment during the marathon House budget debate on Thursday.

Gonzales, who worked in the Capitol for 20 years before his 2010 election, said the opposition to private school vouchers hasn’t softened even as Texas’ rural areas lost political clout and Republicans have become more conservative.

There is no clear-cut explanation for why the opposition to vouchers persists, he said.

Of the Republicans who voted for the Herrero amendment, about 25 percent were former school board members. Others are rural Republicans who have never warmed to vouchers because their communities and school districts are tightly linked. Many suburban Republicans also joined the bipartisan coalition.

The Democratic minority was unified behind Herrero.

The issue of private school vouchers had died down after the 2005 defeat, but it resurfaced last summer as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst proclaimed his commitment to “school choice.” He later named an unabashed school choice advocate, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to lead the Senate Education Committee.

In December, the two appeared together at an Austin Catholic elementary school to roll out their plan, which includes a private school scholarship program paid for through private business donations. The businesses, in turn, would receive a tax credit from the state.

The scholarships aren’t vouchers and don’t divert money from public schools, Patrick has said.

It is debatable whether the Herrero amendment, assuming it stays in the final budget, would have any practical effect on the legislation Patrick has introduced. That bill, which will be heard in committee Tuesday, would allow businesses that donate to a private school scholarship fund to receive tax credits from the state but wouldn’t require an appropriation from the state.

But the Herrero amendment is probably not the biggest roadblock for the Patrick legislation. That would be the House Public Education Committee. Nine of the 10 committee members voted for the amendment and against vouchers.

“As I have observed all along, it would be very difficult to get a private school voucher (bill) out of the floor of the House and apparently out of the committee,” Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said after the vote Thursday.

“I think that was a pretty clear message today,” Aycock said. “As chairman of the committee, I received that message from my fellow committee members as well.”

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