As the 83rd Legislative Session begins today in the Texas Capitol, one of the biggest threats to our state is the continuing assault on public education by Republican extremists.
In the last session, school funding was slashed by $5.4 billion. You would think a top priority this session would be to restore those funds — and maybe even take into account the enormous growth in the state’s student population. Over the past decade, according to the Coalition for Public Schools, Texas accounted for half of the new public school enrollment in the entire country.But Governor Perry, Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Senator Dan Patrick (newly appointed chairman of the Senate Education Committee) are rattling their sabers about taxpayer funded vouchers for private schools. They call it “school choice,” but what it really amounts to is an ongoing failure of the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to provide free, high-quality public education to Texas children.
Representative Donna Howard has been a strong voice in our Central Texas delegation to protect public education — and by extension to protect the state’s employment-ready, well-educated workforce. The Republican majority in ’11 defeated her amendment to designate additional money from the Rainy Day Fund to make up for the previous cuts. If that had passed, given the improved budget conditions now, our schools would already be making up for lost funding.
Private school vouchers are not the answer to our public education problems. The current proposal floating under the dome is called Taxpayer Savings Grants, and according to education experts who have studied it (and an analysis in the Houston Chronicle), it is deeply flawed.
Voucher supporters claim subsidizing students to attend private school saves public money, but the proposed vouchers (worth about $5,000 per student per year) wouldn’t come close to covering private tuition. Most private schools are already at capacity, with stiff competition for admission, and have no incentive to take economically challenged applicants. On a practical level, government subsidies for private schools also would be open to accountability concerns, both financially and academically.
The Legislature has argued about vouchers before, although the issue didn’t come up in 2011 or 2009. In 2007 the House voted overwhelmingly against the idea, with Democrats and rural Republicans joining forces in favor of keeping public money in public education.
We know vouchers will be hotly debated this session. Democrats gained seven seats in the House in the ’12 elections, but by most accounts, the 83rd Legislature will be more conservative than last session with more Tea Party-leaning Republicans arriving. Senator Patrick has been talking about vouchers with anybody who will listen and thinks he can make the case this time.
Public education shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and the state shouldn’t be allowed to avoid its responsibility to provide free, quality education for all Texas children. We’re fortunate in Travis County to have a Democratic delegation that understands the value of public education, and I know you all join me in thanking them and supporting them for looking out for our future. This is likely to be a challenging session, but we have great legislators fighting for us. (See Part 1 of our two-part look at their priorities in today’s “On the Record with Diane Holloway.”)
Travis County Democratic Party Chair