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During an impromptu meeting Thursday, the House Public Education Committee hastily passed legislation that would allocate government money to low-income parents in certain school districts to transfer their children from public to private schools.
The bipartisan committee voted 5-3 in favor of referring the bill favorably to the House Calendar Committee, which sets a date for a full vote on the measure.
Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who authored the bill, said he expects a full vote on the House floor within the next few weeks.
"It's a good thing for Texans," said Michael Sullivan, director of government relations for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential group of conservative policy wonks. "Children benefit when children have more opportunity and more choices. Obviously our public schools are doing a fantastic job in educating just about every kid in just about every circumstance. But there are kids who need different circumstances."
Critics of the voucher program questioned why the move was made on the House floor with little public notice.
"We wonder why the vote was taken at the chairman's desk on the floor of the House and not in committee where the public would be fully aware that a vote was on the agenda," said Larry Comer, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Professional Educators. "Perhaps the committee members are afraid of public backlash to a tax entitlement plan that benefits only private and parochial schools at the expense of public schools."
A "school voucher" program, which has previously been unsuccessful in the Texas Legislature, has drawn criticism from teachers' groups who say a lack of state accountability in private schools can be detrimental to students.
"To give tax dollars to private school operators is to transfer money from a system which is highly accountable to taxpayers into a system that has no accountability at all," said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. Cole noted private schools are not subject to open records and meetings requirements.
Sullivan argued that accountability in private schools is more efficient.
"Private schools have the greatest accountability possible - Mom and Dad can say we're leaving," Sullivan said. "What accountability does Harvard have, does Baylor have? We believe that parents really do care about their children's education and there's an arrogance in thinking that Mom and Dad can't make good educational choices for their children."
Other opponents say the measure would be fiscally irresponsible in the face of an estimated $9.9 billion budget shortfall.
"This voucher bill is so fiscally irresponsible that it drew bipartisan opposition," said Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes the voucher system. "Our state is facing a $10 billion budget deficit and our schools are facing billions in education cuts. Texans know that now is not the time to drain millions more from our public schools."
Still, chances for the bill this time around seem promising as House Speaker Tom Craddick, Gov. Rick Perry, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst - all Republicans - have said they favor a voucher program.
"I think you're seeing areas of the state where there are still some failing schools and those children in those failing schools should not be forced to a life of mediocracy or failure just because someone wants to protect a failing school," Perry said, during an interview with The Associated Press before the session started in January. "I still think that's an appropriate option for parents and students."
Grusendorf, who prefers the term "freedom scholarships" over vouchers, said the loss of money and students to public schools would be countered by other legislation allocating more money per student to public schools.
"Free education isn't free, it's our tax dollars that are being used whether they're being used at a public school or at a school other than public that the parent chooses, they're still our tax dollars being used," said Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. "The bottom line shouldn't be the money, the bottom line should be the child's education."
Public schools in Texas are funded primarily with local property taxes and state money. The school finance system, known to some as Robin Hood, takes money from property rich districts and gives it to poorer schools.
The program would be limited to children of low-income families in the state's largest school districts, with enrollments of more than 40,000.
Eleven public school districts would be initially affected: Aldine, Alief, Houston, Pasadena, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville, El Paso and Ysleta.
In 2005, local school boards could vote to allow any district to participate.
The private schools that accept the vouchers would be required to make test scores public, a provision critics oppose because the public has no say in what kind of test.
Public schools would continue to receive some funding for students who choose to use a voucher, including about 10 percent of the value of the voucher. Private schools would receive 90 percent of the voucher or the school's average annual cost per student, whichever is less.