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Battle Brewing Over School Choice Option

Seth Sawyers
Flickr Creative Commons

The battle lines are already being drawn over proposed legislation that would help low-income Texas students pay for private schooling. Some opponents to the plan announced Wednesday by Republican leaders in the Texas Senate said it was just another version of vouchers, which previous legislatures have rejected.

At a Catholic elementary near the Texas capitol Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick outlined his plan for giving Texas parents more options to choose their children’s schools.

The controversial centerpiece: a tax credit for businesses that donate to a fund. The fund would pay for low-income children to attend private schools.

“We’re going to allow businesses to deduct up to 25 percent of what they would pay on the franchise tax, or if they pay the insurance premium tax,” said Patrick.

Patrick, a Houston Republican, claims public schools would not lose money, a complaint that has derailed voucher legislation.

“School districts would still get the same amount of money they receive today based on what the formulas are that given year,” he explained.

“And if students leave and take these scholarships that’s one less student they have to educate. And remember even these businesses that take these tax credits have to pay school property taxes which go to these schools,” he said.

But critics from both parties quickly pointed out that public schools would lose money because the businesses wouldn’t be paying as much franchise tax sometimes referred to as the margins tax. When legislators reduced school property taxes in 2006 they replaced the revenue with the margins tax to support public schools.

State Representative Diane Patrick– no relation to the Senator – is a longtime educator and Arlington Republican. She says the “tax-credit scholarships” would shift the school tax burden back to local taxpayers.

“What would happen is that you have a decrease in state funding as a result of that, which the local taxpayers would have to pick up. Or they would have to reduce spending in their schools even further than they already have,” Rep. Patrick said.

State Senator Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, agrees calling the tax-credit plan a voucher in disguise.

Davis sits on the Senate’s education committee with Senator Patrick and says she’s further disturbed that private schools receiving the scholarships would not have to meet the same accountability standards that have increased testing in the public schools.

“We’re talking about creating two very distinct systems where one set of public tax dollars would go off into a private and parochial arena with no accountability attached to it, while in the traditional public school system our public schools are literally being crippled by an accountability system that has done nothing but set our children and our schools up to fail,” Davis said.

Numerous education groups are also panning the plan. Supporters include private and parochial school groups, as well as Lt. Governor David Dewhurst who joined Patrick at the press conference. Dewhurst’s support means that despite some loud opposition the plan will automatically move forward when the legislature convenes next month.

Patrick says he also wants to expand school choice by allowing students to attend any public school in their districts; schools in other districts with enough room; and by allowing the creation of more charter schools.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.