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Monday, March 11, 2013 - 11:01
AUSTIN — Ending speculation over when — or whether — his widely promoted school choice legislation would emerge, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed a bill creating a business tax scholarship for students to attend private schools.
The Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program, or Senate Bill 23, would allow economically disadvantaged and at-risk students who attend public schools to transfer to private schools, including religious institutions. Under the program, businesses would receive an up to 15-percent state tax credit in exchange for contributions to a nonprofit organization that would distribute grants to qualifying students, with priority given to those at underperforming campuses. The legislation is co-sponsored by state Sen. Ken Paxton, the McKinney Republican who filed his own tax credit scholarship bill Monday.
"In order to give the children of Texas a better education and a brighter future we must focus on creating more choices for parents including charter, online learning, and the ability for parents to find the right school for their child," Patrick said in a news release announcing the bill Friday. "Several hundred-thousand students are stuck in low-performing schools today. This should not be acceptable to anyone."
Patrick's plan is not the only school choice measure to come through Friday, which marked the deadline to file bills for the current legislative session. Paxton, along with fellow freshman Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, also filed "taxpayer savings grant" legislation that would allow parents to receive reimbursement for a portion of state costs for sending their children to public schools if they choose to enroll in a private school. State Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, filed a similar proposal in the House.
As chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, Patrick has been a vocal champion of school choice reform, which he says not only provides increased opportunities for low-income students trapped in failing schools but also improves the public education system as a whole by fostering competition. Legislation that would dramatically increase the number of charter schools in the state is also among his top priorities this session.
Patrick first formally announced his plans for the tax credit scholarship at a December news conference with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Since then, Gov. Rick Perry has also supported the concept in remarks delivered around the state. On Friday, he also released a statement commending the school choice proposals in the Legislature.
“Expanding school choice in Texas will empower parents to make decisions in the best interest of their children, and provide an incentive to keep all Texas schools competitive," he said. "I applaud these lawmakers for championing legislation that will benefit our students and our schools as well as the employers and industries that depend on our highly competitive workforce.”
But despite the high-profile praise, leaders in the House, including Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, have expressed skepticism that such programs could pass in the lower chamber.
They have also generated opposition from advocacy groups in the state, including the Coalition For Public Schools, whose membership includes the state's major education associations. The coalition released a statement Friday saying it was "appalling to see such legislation filed that would create a corporate tax loophole and voucher scholarships to divert critical dollars into an experimental voucher program to subsidize private education" following the $5.4 billion state budget cut to public education in 2011.
There is also concern about what critics of the plan view as a lack of accountability it provides for taxpayer dollars. The program would intercept the money before it hits public coffers, which would allow private schools to remain outside of regulations and accountability measures applied to the state's public schools. At a Thursday event hosted by the Tribune, Aycock said that he considered a tax credit program to be a use of public funds — and that any proposal that did not provide adequate accountability measures for public money would be unlikely to pass out of his committee.
Patrick's legislation does require private schools that accept students under the scholarship program to administer a nationally norm-referenced assessment test or the state exam — but it is unclear whether that would be enough to sell the plan to critics.
In October, Patrick told the Tribune he was prepared for future battles in his reform efforts, which he said are directed at improving opportunities for Texas students.
“If you don't have a quality education in life, you just don't have a realistic shot of living the American dream,” he said. “And we should not rob that opportunity from anyone because tackling the problems is too controversial."