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School Choice Bill Proponents, Foes Debate What's Best For Families

Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
Opponents of SB 3 and school choice legislation making its way through the State Capitol rally on the South Steps March 21, 2017 as bills on Governor Greg Abbott's emergency agenda are considered Tuesday.

Maria Aberra put on her red school uniform shirt with the Texas emblem like she does every morning — but instead of heading to her charter school, she drove 20 miles with her mom Tuesday to the Capitol to testify on school choice.

The 15-year-old Priority Charter School student wanted legislators to know that she wants Texas to make it easier for her and her siblings to transfer schools. She had to transfer from her local public school when her family moved from Round Rock to Cedar Park.

"As much as I like my school I'm currently in, I feel like there's some stuff I would prefer to have at other schools," she said.

She spoke as the Senate Education Committee debated "private school choice," a fight ostensibly about whether to allow public funds to go to private schools — but Tuesday morning, the debate focused in large part on the right way to educate millions of black and Hispanic students like Aberra in Texas schools.

The committee heard public testimony Tuesday for the first time on Senate Bill 3, which would create two public programs to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling expenses. According to the Legislative Budget Board's fiscal note on the bill, Taylor's legislation would cost the state a minimum of about $90 million in general revenue in the next two years.

Advocates on both sides argued they knew what educational system was the best for families, and they deployed competing numbers to prove it.

School choice advocates brought in experts from across the country to roll out statistics from other states that had implemented private school subsidies — to show that they made parents happier, test scores higher, and students less likely to end up in criminal activity. The first opponent of the bill to speak, Donna Corbin of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, cited different studies, showing subsidies caused students to score lower on tests and ultimately leave the school choice programs in droves.

Each side argued they had the support of black and Latino communities.

"The Latino community stands to benefit greatly from these improvements, and it is no surprise that they are strongly in support," said Jorge Lima, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a conservative national grassroots organization that connects Latinos with elected officials. "More than any other demographic, Latinos believe in the American Dream. They believe the American Dream is comprised of two main things: hard work and education."

After the first part of the hearing, a coalition of Latino and black activists rallied outside the Capitol to disagree with that claim and others calling private school subsidies a "civil rights issue."

Private school vouchers, they argued, were created to defund public schools and reverse the progress of the civil rights movement.

"Maybe if they spent more time inside a classroom rather than defunding it, they'd learn a valuable history lesson," said San Antonio Democrat Sen. José Menéndez. "Vouchers were developed after Brown v. Board of Education as a tool to avoid desegregation, designed to divert public dollars from schools that were forced to integrate to private schools that weren't under the spotlight of the public."

All but one Democratic senator voted against last session's private school choice bill.

Waiting for the Senate committee to reconvene Tuesday afternoon, 10th-grader Aberra was not so concerned with the technicalities of school choice. She's happy at her charter school, but wants a school with more options for extracurricular activities, maybe an arts program like theater. "I'd probably go to a public school," she said.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.