- By Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
More than 2,000 people rallied at the Capitol on Friday for the annual event to support school choice — a contentious concept that pits private and charter schools against public school districts.
Several Republican lawmakers appeared with Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a former high school teacher and longtime school choice advocate, who said that supporting more educational options, such as private, charter and home schooling, is about getting kids out of failing schools.
“Education policy is too important for politics,” Bush said. “Too often school choice is viewed as anti-public schools, but nothing could be further from the truth. We need school choice now more than ever to reward achievement, the trial of new ideas and a qualitative approach as opposed to a purely quantitative approach to judging our schools.”
The battle over school choice — often associated with giving state money to students to attend nontraditional public schools or private schools — is heating up again with Republican leaders promising to pass a school choice measure next legislative session, which is about a year away. Traditional public school advocates say that the term “school choice” has been co-opted by politicians who want to give state dollars to charter schools and private schools and vendors, without holding them to the same standard of accountability as school districts.
Traditional public school proponents said there are plenty of specialty programs, such as single-gender, magnet, fine arts and career-technology campuses, within school districts.
“We believe parents should have the right to have their children educated wherever they want,” said David Anthony, CEO of the public school advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas. “We just don’t think that all public tax dollars should support education where there isn’t transparency and accountability.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t attend Friday’s rally but has long considered school choice a top priority. He released multiple statements this week promising “an even stronger school choice package” next legislative session. He has directed the Senate Education Committee to explore options.
“School choice is a victory for our parents, students and Texas,” Patrick said in a release.
Last session, the Senate passed a comprehensive school choice bill that would have provided up to $100 million in tax credits to businesses that donate money to a state-approved nonprofit that would dole out the funds to public school students to help pay for tuition at alternative schools. It sputtered in the House.
An idea recently gaining traction among school choice proponents, including Patrick, calls for a system of education savings accounts for students leaving the public school system. State dollars — equal to about the amount spent to educate the student in a public school — would be deposited into the account and the parent could use the money to fund college credit courses, private school, private tutors, transportation or another approved option. Payments would be made to the approved school or vendor.
State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, proposed legislation last year that would have created such a savings account but it would have capped the number of eligible students. The bill he is interested in filing next session would open eligibility to any student, similar to a system in Nevada.
“The money follows the student, and there’s financial and academic accountability for the parents who sign up for the program. It’s one of the answers for improving our public school system. Competition lowers the price and increases the quality,” Huffines told the American-Statesman.
Monty Exter, lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said that the Nevada system has been accused of being unconstitutional and having poor oversight of how the money is spent. Exter warns that Texas could run into the same problems if it institutes such a system.
“When you take state money, then you have to have state accountability, you have to have the state standards,” he said. “I just don’t see (private schools) wanting to take everything that’d be required to be taken with that money.”