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Lawmakers should invest in education and other state needs, not grant selective tax cuts

Near the start of his inaugural address, Gov. Greg Abbott said state leaders will work together during this legislative session to “keep Texas the land of opportunity.” After bragging about the prosperous state economy and an unprecedented $32.7 billion budget surplus, he then promised to provide the “largest property tax cut in Texas history.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan then put a price tag on that tax cut — $15 billion, according to the preliminary House and Senate budgets, or almost half of the surplus.

What that means is they will work to keep the most comfortable Texans comfortable, while wasting what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the kinds of investments that could begin to improve the lives of millions of not-so-comfortable Texans, including thousands of school employees and millions of their students, who vastly outnumber their more-comfortable neighbors.

Patrick insists upon returning a “significant portion of the record surplus to those who created it: the taxpayers.” But he seems to forget who many of these taxpayers are.

They are teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other school employees who have to take second jobs to make ends meet because the state doesn’t spend enough on public education. They are retired educators who struggle to meet their basic needs because they don’t qualify for Social Security and their TRS pensions are inadequate and lack an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).

They are working, low-income families whose children drop out of school to help their parents feed their siblings. Or their undernourished kids go to school sick and struggle with their lessons because the state, under its current leadership, refuses to provide adequate health care for those in need.

Many of these struggling Texans are under-paid state employees, including thousands in dangerous jobs.

Every Texas resident, regardless of income, has fed the budget surplus. Rich, poor and in-between, citizen or immigrant, they pay the sales taxes that have been rising with inflation. They pay gasoline taxes, fees to register or inspect their cars and a host of other state charges.

Most Texas taxpayers — the not-so-comfortable and the very uncomfortable – don’t need tax relief as much as they need a much larger state investment in education, health care, job training, infrastructure and other public needs the state leadership continues to neglect.

These millions of Texans who need financial help the most are likely to receive only minimal relief, if any, from property tax reduction schemes. That’s because they don’t own their homes. They live in rented housing. Their rental payments help their landlords pay for their own taxes, but most landlords aren’t likely to share any tax relief with tenants by lowering their rent charges.

The biggest beneficiaries of property tax reductions will be corporations and Texas’ wealthiest property owners. Middle-class Texans who may be impressed with their initial tax reductions will be complaining about rising taxes again in a few years as their property values continue to increase. It’s a predictable cycle that will continue unless the Legislature makes a substantially larger investment of state dollars in public education and changes the property tax-driven school finance system.

The record budget surplus is a huge temptation for state leaders to promise tax cuts. Instead, they should use the opportunity to make some lasting investments in Texas’ future. They should help all Texans, especially those who need help the most.

Revising Gov. Abbott’s goal, let’s make Texas the land of opportunity – for all Texans.

Clay Robison

Texas’ “trust-us” system for homeschoolers may worsen a voucher feeding frenzy

It is believed that the number of home-schoolers has increased in Texas since the onset of the pandemic and the temporary diversion of public school students into online learning from home. The public school enrollment of 5.4 million children in 2021-22 had started to recover but was still lower than it had been before the pandemic struck during the 2019-20 school year.

Some of those missing students may simply have dropped out. But the Texas Homeschool Coalition estimates that as many as 750,000 Texas kids are now taking school lessons at home, a marked increase from the pre-pandemic days.

This makes the renewed push for school vouchers even riskier for Texas taxpayers and their underfunded public schools. Some homeschoolers, as well as private school operators, are eager for the chance to get their hands on tax-paid vouchers. Voucher access apparently is a priority of the Texas Homeschool Coalition, and some pro-voucher advocates seem eager to accommodate them with their “parental freedom” and “money-following-the-child” rhetoric.

Until 1994, the Texas Education Agency considered home schools illegal. That year, the Texas Supreme Court, ruling in a lawsuit called Texas Education Agency v. Leeper, ended a long legal battle and held that Texas parents had a right to educate their own children. The court held that a home school was legitimate if parents used books, workbooks or other materials and met “basic educational goals” by teaching at least these five subjects – reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and good citizenship.

Taking tax dollars from public schools to help families pay tuition for their children at unregulated private schools is bad enough. But arguably, giving tax dollars to homeschoolers is even worse because there is no guarantee that every family that claims to be teaching its children at home is actually doing so.

I know of dedicated homeschooling families whose children have gone on to earn college degrees. But Texas doesn’t require any measurement – not even a standardized test – of how well home-schooled children are being taught – or even if they are being taught. Homeschoolers are exempt from the state’s compulsory school attendance law, and parents don’t have to notify their local school districts of their homeschool intentions. They are required only to withdraw their children from public school if their children already are enrolled.

Several years ago, El Paso ISD tried to investigate a homeschooling family after relatives complained there was little, if any, evidence the parents were teaching their children anything except their religious beliefs. After the parents sued the school district, the Texas Supreme Court sided with the parents without addressing the most important issue: Do homeschooling parents have to prove they are properly educating their kids?

As far as the state of Texas is concerned, they don’t. This will only encourage fake “homeschoolers” to try to join the feeding frenzy for a share of our tax dollars if lawmakers create a voucher system to their liking. The most effective solution is for lawmakers to kill all voucher plans.

Clay Robison

Dan Patrick is trying to con rural Texans into dropping their opposition to vouchers

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spent a lot of time during his reelection campaign on a bus tour of rural Texas, an important part of his political base and home to an important group of people he hopes to sucker into supporting his latest attempt to steal education tax dollars for private school vouchers. The result of his attempted con could go a long way toward determining the fate of vouchers during the upcoming legislative session.

Patrick and his allies, mostly Republicans, have tried to force vouchers on Texas taxpayers several times before, only to be repeatedly blocked in the House by a combination of Democratic and rural Republican legislators who, unlike Patrick, value their public schools and the important contributions they make to their local communities and their state’s future.

These rural lawmakers represent constituents who also recognize the folly of stealing funding from their local school districts, which also are major employers in their communities. Most of these people voted for Patrick and his fellow voucher promoter, Greg Abbott, but they also know they have few, if any, private schools in their towns. So why should their small, public schools be forced to bleed money to benefit private school owners and students hundreds of miles away in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio or Austin?

Patrick and his privatization allies don’t have a good answer for that question because there isn’t one. Instead, Patrick is trying to con his rural supporters by promising that small, rural schools will be excluded from any voucher program.

That apparently means that students in rural districts would be excluded from receiving any vouchers or tax-credit scholarships from any program the Legislature may enact. But Patrick’s promise ignores the major problem that concerns his rural constituents: Their underfunded school districts would still lose valuable tax dollars to pay for the voucher program.

That’s because any tax dollars diverted to vouchers would take money away from all public schools across the state, even schools in rural areas, even schools whose students aren’t eligible to receive vouchers.

Rural children wouldn’t get vouchers, but their school districts and their parents would still be paying to send children in faraway cities to private schools.

What kind of deal is that? Like all voucher plans, it’s a bad one.

Clay Robison

Is Gov. Abbott’s education commissioner using existing law to support a secret voucher plan?

Among many reasons for voting for Beto O’Rourke for governor is O’Rourke’s firm opposition to vouchers and Greg Abbott’s intention to make vouchers a priority for next year’s legislative session. According to a Texas Monthly article, however, Abbott’s state education commissioner may have endorsed a secret plan to bypass the Legislature and encourage school districts to create their own vouchers now.

The idea is to use an existing law, SB1882, enacted in 2017, which gives school districts additional state funding if they form partnerships with outside entities, including charter schools, to take control of struggling campuses.

Texas Monthly writer Forrest Wilder identified one of the authors of the plan as Aaron Harris, a Fort Worth-based Republican consultant who apparently has spent more time spreading lies about voter fraud than learning anything about educating kids. Nevertheless, he cofounded a nonprofit called the Texans for Education Rights Institute with Monty Bennett, a dabbler in “education reform,” who in real life is a wealthy Dallas hotelier.

They made a confidential proposal to Wimberley ISD in Central Texas for a SB1882 partnership between the district and their Texans for Education Rights Institute to create a charter school tentatively called the Texas Achievement Campus, even though there were no plans to create a real campus.

Instead, Texans for Education Rights would work with Responsive Education Solutions, a charter school chain based in Lewisville, near Dallas, to place public school students from around the state into private schools of their choice at “no cost to their families.” The children would be counted as Wimberley ISD students enrolled at the non-existent Achievement Campus, but the extra tax dollars awarded to the district for its additional “attendance” would be redirected to private schools throughout Texas.

According to Texas Monthly’s reporting, state Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Abbott’s appointee, knew about the plan and would have supported Texas Education Agency staff providing “technical support” to Wimberley ISD at no cost to the district. TEA also reportedly raised some “challenges,” including the question of how the school district would “ensure private schools serving (Wimberley ISD) students outside the community” were following state-mandated curriculum.

After intense lobbying by the plan’s supporters, the Wimberley school board voted 4-2 in early August to scrap the proposal, although one board member who supported the plan reportedly claimed, “TEA is 100 percent supportive of the program.”

The pro-voucher group also is believed to be pitching the same idea to other school districts.

“I’m not accusing anyone of laundering money, by the legal definition, but there sure are a lot of hands touching a lot of money in this,” Alief ISD Supt. H.D. Chambers told Texas Monthly. “It’s a Trojan Horse for vouchers.”

Inside the secret plan to bring private school vouchers to Texas

Clay Robison