On The Lege

School-Choice Choices

A bill to enact private-school voucher programs in Texas was expected to clear the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, but voucher proponents may already be muttering "Wait 'til next year." Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos vowed Friday to fight any and all "risky voucher experiments," such as SB 10, proposed by Senate Education Committee Chair Teel Bivins, and word has it that he has the votes to keep Bivins' bill off the Senate floor. Bivins' office said Tuesday the senator is still rallying supporters but "hasn't taken a head count"of the bill's allies. SB 10 would give educationally disadvantaged children in the state's six most populous counties the option of enrolling in private schools at public schools' expense. If it founders, legislators say, the prospects for similar House legislation sink with it. Barrientos has argued that this program could take as much as $187 million out of Texas public schools, but supporters point out that realistic transfer costs would probably representless than 1% of districts' budgets.

But if private-school vouchers are not the preferred vehicle for school choice this session, what else do legislators have on deck to addresseducational inequities in urban districts? Nothing that's creating a buzz comparable to vouchers, but Senate and House members are offering bills to enhance the accessibility of Public Education Grants (PEGs), a scarcely used program that allows students to transfer outside their home districts if space permits. Legislation by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh would allow parents to submit a top-five list of schools to their home district and require the district to place their child in the school of highest preference which has space available. Legislation by Dallas Rep. Domingo Garcia would require schools to accept PEG transfers unless they can prove they are already at capacity.

But nowhere is there any bill proposing that public school districts dispense with boundary zones altogether, as was tried with great success in the Ysleta district, outside El Paso. The experiment may intrigue legislators, but Houston Rep. Scott Hochberg aide Drew Scheberle says school officials don't relish the transportation and accounting hassles such a system would impose on their districts. In urban districts, where certain schools flourish academically while others struggle, students would invariably flock to the most prestigious campuses -- a problem less pronounced in Ysleta, where schools were uniformly troubled, Sheberle says. Garcia aide Tony Garrett adds that lowering the barriers to student transfers could provoke "a vicious underground battle," as school administrators under pressure to produce high-performing campuses fight to control their student populations. Given the difficulty of navigating such political minefields in public school administration, it's no surprise that legislators are tempted to look to the private sector for solutions.--K.F.

Nail in the Coffin

If Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has his way, the Texas Funeral Service Commission will soon be six feet under. Pitts has introduced a bill that will transfer all of the agency's duties to the Texas Dept. of Health effective Sept. 1. Pitts and the other members of the House Appropriations Committee have already voted unanimously to kill all of the agency's funding for the next biennium. With HB 2756, Pitts wants to put a stake through the heart of an agency that he calls "a mess." Pitts, who headed a subcommittee which examined the agency, said he was distressed by the agency's firing of former executive director Eliza May. Pitts says, "May was fired even though it appears that the problems they had with their audit were corrected. They had 17 problems with their audit and there were only two left that they hadn't taken care of. Then, at that same time, they came to us and said that Ms. May was doing such a good job that we should give her a raise. We didn't act on it, because by the time it came to us she was fired." (See "Buried in Scandal," p.16.)

Under Pitts' proposal, the TDH would regulate the funeral industry with the help of a five-member funeral services advisory committee, appointed by the Texas Board of Health and including three licensed funeral directors, of whom only one can own a funeral establishment. The other two members will be public members.

Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, also has the agency in his crosshairs. He says the TFSC has "all the symptoms of an agency that couldn't seem to take care of business." And he added that the agency's board has used its investigative powers as "a tool to launch political attacks on each other." With SB 440, Moncrief wants to move the agency's sunset date up from 2003 to 2001. By that time, "If they haven't cleaned their act up, we'll put them somewhere else," says Moncrief.

Calls to Hank Schmidt, president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association, were not returned. Regardless of the industry's stance on the TFSC, though, Pitts believes the decision is clear when it comes to the agency's future. "We need to terminate it," he said. --R.B.

Cooperative Spirit

Cooperative housing has always been the quirky stepchild in the University of Texas' large family of housing options. More like communes than dorm rooms, co-ops are run collaboratively by the students who live in them. Residents share cooking, cleaning, and general maintenance responsibilities; in exchange, they get a place to live for about half the cost of similar rental properties in their areas.

The co-ops have been run for more than 60 years by elected councils of residents and paid managers, whose salaries are determined by majority vote. The arrangement is, as proponents of the system point out, almost relentlessly democratic. But ever since the 1970s, when the groups began buying property for the first time, the co-ops' existence as islands of affordable housing in an ocean of exponentially rising rents has been threatened by one inescapable element of ownership: mushrooming property values. Taxes on the dozen or so houses where co-ops are located amounted to over $200,000 for UT's two property-owning cooperatives in 1998, or around 20% of their budgets, says Gentry Woodard, a lobbyist hired by the co-ops to plead their case to the legislature. What the co-ops are angling for is legislation (SB 1054 filed by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and
HB 2269 filed by Houston Rep. Peggy Hamric) to exempt all cooperative student housing from increasingly onerous property taxes. At around $250 per student per year and rising, Woodard says, the tax burden on kids living in co-ops is "extraordinary. It's unbelievable that they have this burden put on them. These are just a bunch of struggling students."

The Lege is familiar territory for the co-ops, who have approached lawmakers every session since 1987 with a tax break proposal. One co-op, College Houses, estimates that it has spent almost $24,000 since 1990 to fund tax protests.

The co-ops are located primarily in the historical West Campus neighborhood near UT. None of the houses was built more recently than the mid-1930s, and co-op officials say that if taxes get any more burdensome, routine maintenance on the aging structures may become a luxury. "These are old, old buildings," says Brenda Smith, general manager for the Inter-Cooperative Council. "We're trying to renovate them and make them better, and when I say 'renovate,' I mean keep them standing and keep them safe."

Smith adds:"We certainly don't want to be a drain on the local economy, but it gets more and more difficult to keep our rents affordable for students. And if people can't afford to live here, they don't have anywhere else to go." --E.C.B.

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