Key lawmaker says stars aligned for school choice push in Texas

School choice in Texas is getting a big push this year from a key lawmaker who has made it a top priority.

Texas Sen. Dan Patrick

Texas Sen. Dan Patrick

“I’m the new chair of the Senate Education Committee and this is important to me,’’ state Sen. Dan Patrick, who has served on the committee for six years, said in a telephone interview with redefinED. “Here’s an issue that I’ve decided we need to push, but now I’m in a position that I can move it forward.’’

Patrick, R-Houston, and other school choice advocates in Texas are looking to create a tax credit program similar to the one in Florida that allows corporations to redirect a portion of state taxes to a scholarship fund in return for a tax credit. Low-income families who qualify can use the scholarship to help pay tuition at private schools.

Patrick has included the measure in an ambitious education plan that also calls for doing away with the 215-school cap on charter schools; incorporating a school rating system modeled after Florida’s A-F grades; and giving students the ability to enroll in any school within their district or in another district that has space.

In the interview, Patrick called school choice a civil rights issue and a “moral right.” He also offered a feisty response to an ad campaign, launched last fall by school choice opponents, that suggested “vouchers” would jeopardize Friday night football.

“With all due respect, that campaign is idiotic,’’ he said. “Texas would cut out math before they would cut out football.’’

Here’s more from the interview:

Why now? What’s different in Texas politics that makes you think you can convince lawmakers to support tax credit scholarships?

Patrick acknowledged that in past years, some school choice proposals went unsupported even by members of his own party, mostly rural Republicans who didn’t see the need for increased options for parents and students.

“Look, there’s no question it’s going to be an uphill fight,’’ he said. “Anything that is transformative on any issue is never easy.’’

He compared this fight to one in which he supported a bill that requires a woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram at least 24 hours before the procedure. The contentious legislation passed and became law in May 2011.

“It took three sessions to get that passed,’’ Patrick said. “I think that was harder to pass because it was based on ideology. This issue (school choice), I believe I have the opportunity to persuade some people. Here, we have a comprehensive legislative reform package – the biggest, probably, in the history of the state.’’

What specifics can you give about the tax credit?

Patrick said it’s a still a work in progress. Since there’s no state corporate income tax in Texas, he’s looking at a franchise tax.

Texas would allow businesses and private individuals to contribute to a nonprofit – similar to Step Up For Students in Florida – that would administer the scholarships. (Step Up co-hosts this blog.)

The goal is to raise more than $200 million to start, by crediting businesses up to 5 percent of their franchise tax with no cap. Texas, on average, collects about $4 billion a year in franchise taxes, Patrick said.

Scholarships would account for 80 percent of the money raised, he said. The remaining 20 percent would go to public school districts, which could apply for grants for pre-K and afterschool programs for students in failing schools.

The scholarships would be more than Florida’s 2012-13 allotment of $4,335, Patrick said, but less than the annual per-pupil cost for public school students in Texas. Texas public schools spend more than $8,000 per student.

The bill has yet to be filed. Patrick said he may have a Democratic co-sponsor, but declined to say who.

He also said tax-credit scholarships have a better shot than vouchers. Unlike vouchers, the money for tax credit scholarships technically never touches public coffers. Also, the term “vouchers” has become sullied after years of pounding from critics.

“I’ve already been told by the Republicans in the House that vouchers don’t have support,’’ Patrick said. “The votes count. I want to pass the bill and that’s the bill that will pass.’’

In the fall, a group called Save Texas Football aired a television ad that said “frightening new plans threaten to turn out our Friday night lights,’’ referring to vouchers and suggesting the end of high school football. How much traction will this ad get in Texas and what do you think about the pitch?

The ad was designed to tug at the hearts of parents and students who might support school choice but would think twice if told it would end their school’s football program, Patrick said.

“If it wasn’t such a serious issue, you could look at this and laugh,’’ he said. School choice “isn’t life or death, but it’s the next closest thing. It’s about freedom and living the American dream. If you have to say to a child ‘you must attend a failing school,’ you are robbing them of any chance of the American dream.’’

Some folks may be persuaded by the ads, Patrick said. But not the families of 100,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools.

“If that’s the best they’ve got,’’ Patrick said of opponents, “we win.’’

 

Correction: Sen. Dan Patrick said the Texas tax credit scholarship program, if approved, will not be a pilot, as previously described by Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. An earlier version of this story said otherwise.

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