The Voucher Death Dance

The House voucher vampires get an education in slaying the beast

Todd Baxter's 11th-hour indecision on vouchers contrasts markedly with his promises in this postcard from the 2002 election that put him in office.
Todd Baxter's 11th-hour indecision on vouchers contrasts markedly with his promises in this postcard from the 2002 election that put him in office.

House Speaker Tom Craddick suffered his biggest upset of the session Monday night, when a dozen Republicans broke ranks to defeat a voucher measure that threatened the funding of public schools. Instead of finding one more way to starve public education, the voucher proponents are once again licking their wounds and waiting for the next biennium.

It's a new concept in this session of the GOP-controlled House – voting for the folks back in their districts instead of the man wielding the gavel on the dais, or the sugar daddy in the back room calling in his chits. Daddy was San Antonio millionaire and GOP bankroller James Leininger, holding court in Craddick's office, where certain waffling reps were summoned for "friendly" chats – something about drawing a primary opponent if they didn't toe the line on vouchers. Gov. Rick Perry, whose own campaign chest is heavily dependent on Leininger money, also did his share of arm-twisting.

On the battlefield, nevertheless, Craddick collided with some serious gridlock. Early in the evening, he was forced personally to break a 71-71 tie on Houston Democrat Scott Hochberg's amendment that would have stripped the voucher language out of Senate Bill 422 – nominally a sunset reauthorization of the Texas Education Agency – to which the voucher provision had been attached when it failed earlier to win passage on its own merits. With the vouchers already on life support, several amendments and five hours of fiery debate later, the entire bill went down in flames on a point of order raised by Democratic Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam, D-Waco. By then, it seemed like a mercy killing.

What's That Smell?

The "pilot" proposal to send at-risk urban kids to private schools – taking several hundred million in public funds along with them – brought out the NIMBY in the two reps most responsible for carrying the voucher issue, Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, author of the original voucher bill, and House Public Ed Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who resurrected the Harper Brown bill by attaching it to the TEA measure. Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren called the suburban reps' bluff with an amendment to replace two of the covered school districts – Fort Worth and Dallas – with Irving and Arlington. Suddenly, vouchers looked like a good idea for everyone's school districts but Linda and Kent's. Geren then delivered a fatal blow with an amendment to remove private and parochial schools as voucher beneficiaries – thereby mooting the whole proposition.

Voucher opponents were jubilant. "The votes yesterday made it clear that vouchers are radioactive," said Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network. "The closer you get to them, the deadlier they are."

The floor fight featured high drama, with anti-voucher Rep. Carter Casteel, R-New Braunfels, delivering a kickass performance in defense of public school teachers. At one point, when pro-voucher Rep. Suzanna Hupp of Lampasas sniffed that she knew of two teachers in her district who "stink," Casteel – formerly a longtime school teacher – looked ready to take a ruler to Hupp's backside. Casteel mocked the voucherites' presumption: "It is an attitude that prevails in this body [that] superintendents are greedy, public school teachers don't know what they're doing, and, folks, we need to send that money away from the public schools – to areas that do not have to account for it! But," she added, "this stinky school teacher had to account!" Raising her voice still higher, Casteel suggested that legislators had no one but themselves to blame for the public school system's shortcomings. "Look in the mirror! We are what we are, and we have created it!"

Waiting for Todd

Earlier in the day, there were whispers that Austin District 48 Rep. Todd Baxter had been among those called in for a Leininger tête-ã-tête. Not true, Baxter says, explaining that his votes – although remarkably consistent with the wishes of Leininger and the leadership – were in fact not predictive of his final vote, had the bill survived. "I was voting to keep the bill alive," Baxter said, "but my vote on final passage would have been contingent on two amendments." Baxter said he personally authored one amendment that would have removed the Austin Independent School District from the proposal – although AISD is one of the "major urban school districts" inevitably targeted by voucher proponents.

A second amendment that Baxter signed on to would have attempted to ensure that rural school districts avoid any financial costs of a state-funded voucher program – an administratively difficult if not unconstitutional arrangement. A conservative state analysis projected only a $69 million loss to public schools statewide, but the Coalition for Public Schools estimated the potential financial toll at $600 million over two years.

In retrospect, it's puzzling that Craddick allowed the debate to drag out for so long without somehow moving the rural amendment forward, if only to provide some political cover for the rural reps before they crawled out on a limb for the leadership. Instead, the order in which the amendments were presented chipped away at the voucher plan at every turn – drawing bursts of spontaneous applause from the anti-voucher crowd in the House gallery.

Baxter's neighbor in District 47, Rep. Terry Keel, has consistently stood his ground against tax-funded tuition for private schools. He was the only Austin-area Republican to join Democrats in defeating the measure. On the Saturday before the vote, voucher opponents knew they could depend on Keel, but they didn't have a clue about Baxter. "He is squishy, squishy, squishy," said Carolyn Boyle, a Baxter constituent and coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools. "Here it is two days before the vote and he hasn't made a commitment. That sounds squishy to me."

After Monday's vote, Boyle said she was pleased with the outcome but dismayed by the process. "There were a lot of up and down moments emotionally," she said. "I had hoped to see a thorough debate by grownups – without the backroom pressure. If not for the arm-twisting and power-brokering, we could have had the votes to settle this a lot sooner."

Indeed, the process appeared to be nothing more than a costly exercise in kowtowing to Leininger and other deep-pocketed voucher floggers, combined with a symbolic GOP loyalty test. Everyone knew the voucher deal was doomed, even if it escaped the House. The Senate sponsor of SB 422, Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, had already vowed to reject any House attempt to insert vouchers into his legislation. Now, thanks to what is becoming a biennial folly, lawmakers will need to salvage the TEA before the session closes on Monday. end story

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