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AUSTIN - While it may appear that school vouchers have taken a backseat to more pressing legislative matters, it's still on the political radar and could be the focus of legislative debate before the session ends June 2.
Both advocates for public school vouchers as well as opponents said vouchers have been overshadowed by the strains of balancing the state budget with its $9.9 billion shortfall, but the issue is not dead.
"We think there is time to get it through," said Peggy Venable, executive director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, a group that promotes the use of vouchers. "In terms of school choice, we think this legislation addresses parents who truly have no other option."
Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that opposes vouchers, said she has never worked so hard on the issue.
"(House) Speaker (Tom) Craddick and Gov. Rick Perry are making it clear to legislators that they view vouchers as a priority," Smoot said. "On the other hand, there is little public support for vouchers especially at a time when legislators are having trouble making ends meet paying for the basics. These two political realities are headed for a showdown."
Just last week, the House Public Education Committee held its first hearing on public school vouchers inviting Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman to testify in favor of vouchers. He said vouchers would improve public education by spurring competition for students between public and private schools.
Voucher bill pending
Left pending in committee was House Bill 2465, which is one of two voucher bills in the House. Bill author Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, is also the chairman of the Public Education Committee.
HB 2465 allows school districts with more than 40,000 students with a majority of the student body being economically disadvantaged to offer families who make no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level - or $36,000 for a family of four - vouchers to go to private schools.
If a child goes to a private school, the private school would get 90 percent of state and local funds normally spent to educate the child in its public school district. The other 10 percent would go to the school district the child would have attended. Children who go to private schools using state money via vouchers would have to take standardized tests.
Eleven districts qualify
Eleven school districts would qualify for the voucher program, including two school districts in the El Paso area and three school districts in the Houston area. But in 2005, all the restrictions expire and all school districts in the state could participate in the voucher program so long as a majority of school board members approve it. All income requirements for participating families disappear as well.
According to the Texas Education Agency, the Corpus Christi Independent School District had 39,138 students in 2001. Fifty-five percent of those students are economically disadvantaged. If Corpus Christi grew to 40,000 students, it would have to participate in the proposed public school voucher program, if the bill passed.
Startup costs involved
While the fiscal note attached to Grusendorf's bill says there would be no financial impact to the state, it also says the voucher program would cost the Texas Comptroller's Office $2 million in startup costs as well as almost $1 million per year for 11 full-time employees to administer the voucher program. The comptroller would be responsible for paying out the vouchers and monitoring whether private schools comply with the laws.
The education agency estimated there are 22,800 private school slots available for the 639,000 children who would qualify. The agency also estimated 8,000 students would use vouchers in 2004 and 15,000 would use them in 2005.
Local school districts shoulder the bulk of the financial burden for vouchers, according to the fiscal note. In 2004, the 11 school districts would lose a combined $40 million, while in 2005, they would forfeit $75 million. It would be difficult for school districts to cut operating expenses to cover the loss of revenue, especially if departing students come from throughout the district, the fiscal note said.
Fears for school funding
"If you can't afford to buy new textbooks or (pay for) teacher health insurance, can you afford a new expense to subsidize private schools?" said Carolyn Boyle, who heads up the Coalition for Public Schools, which is made up of school districts and other community groups that oppose vouchers. "I think legislators think they will look irresponsible if they vote for a private voucher bill."
Boyle said she fears that if a voucher bill fails on the House floor, then voucher amendments might get slipped into other legislation.
Venable, the head of the pro-voucher group, said forcing parents to put their children in a particular public school runs counter to free market principles. She also said $75 million is a small amount of money compared to the $26 billion per year the state and local communities spend on public education funding.
"(Bureaucrats) are scared to death of parents having choices and would put any fiscal note on this they could," Venable said. "I think that is a stretch . . . I can't imagine there is going to be a negative impact. If you have one less child, but 10 percent of the money, you've got more money and less kids."
Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson said he suspects lawmakers will be so consumed with balancing the budget that the voucher issue might remain on the back burner.
"I think the fiscal situation to the state is so evidently dire that they are focusing on the budget," Jillson said. "There just isn't a lot of room for the social agenda of the Republican Party."