Naked City

House scheduled to debate 'school choice' vouchers

A few years from now, local school board races – from rural hamlets to growing suburbs – could become as volatile and costly as partisan bids for the Legislature if a private school voucher bill becomes law.

Under HB 1263, the "school choice" measure would start as a pilot program in the state's five largest counties, including Travis, and extend to all districts statewide beginning in 2010. School boards would need to vote on whether to open their districts to the program, which could, from here on out, spark a rush of pro-voucher candidates clamoring for open board seats (à la Round Rock) and hard-right millionaires, such as San Antonio's James Leininger, spreading their campaign contributions across a wider swath of Texas.

The House is scheduled to debate the measure today (Thursday). Last week, the House Public Education Committee approved it 6-3 on a party line vote. It was the leading favorite of three private school voucher measures filed this session. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, crafted the proposal's pilot specifically for disadvantaged students in urban communities in eight school districts. Kids who have either dropped out of school, are at risk of dropping out, are not English-proficient, have special education needs, or have been victims of violence would be eligible for the vouchers.

Opponents, however, argue that the cost of providing vouchers to pay for private tuition will ultimately bankrupt the state's public schools system, siphoning more than $600 million from local schools in the first two years alone. They also challenge a legislative analysis that estimates an actual gain for the General Fund of more than $2 million during the first two years of the voucher program. Proponents say the program would actually save the state money because students would receive voucher certificates for 90% of the average state cost per pupil. But with funding based on head count, opponents argue that every dollar spent on subsidizing private school tuitions is one less dollar spent on the affected schools.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, was quick to attack the bill. "When lawmakers can't even agree on where to find enough money to pay for public education right now, recommending a bill that could drain more than $600 million from neighborhood public schools over the next two years is incredibly irresponsible," Miller said. "Voting for vouchers is simply a payback to wealthy campaign donors who want tax dollars to subsidize private schools."

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Texas Legislaturevoucherspublic education, House bill 1263, school vouchers, Linda Harper-Brown, Texas Freedom Network, Kathy Miller, James Leininger

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