The opening round of what has become a biennial legislative fight over private school vouchers took place this week before the Senate Education Committee, and predictably the pro-vouchers witnesses included parents with tales of woe about how public schools in their communities weren’t meeting their children’s educational needs.
Just as predictably, committee Chairman Dan Patrick was there, playing the role of the empathetic lawmaker who not only understood their plight but also was prepared to do something about it because he was on their side. And, he has said, his heart especially goes out to those low-income kids who just aren’t making it in inner-city schools.
Stow the violins, folks, and let’s rewind this drama.
Patrick, who will become lieutenant governor in January, is not the champion of school children he purports to be. In fact, his legislative agenda has been harmful to public education in Texas.
For starters, he was an outspoken part of the legislative majority that slashed $5.4 billion from school budgets in 2011. Then, in 2013, he voted against the entire state budget, including all education funding, and now wants to dig public schools into a deeper financial hole.
What the pro-voucher or “school choice” crowd views as failures of the public education system can be attributed to two main factors. One is inadequate funding from the Legislature, and the second is an annual enrollment growth of about 80,000 students, many of whom are from low-income families where survival is a more pressing goal than reading, writing or arithmetic.
Thousands of these children lack health care, are not properly fed and many don’t speak English. They require many support services, in addition to education, that Texas simply doesn’t provide very well. And, tight-fisted, short-sighted legislators, such as Patrick, make their plight worse. These legislators expect public schools to work miracles with these kids, yet they not only persist in cutting funding for educational programs, they also refuse to expand Medicaid coverage and skimp on providing other services the children need.
Now, Patrick is once again trying to peddle private school vouchers – or tax-credit scholarships – as a solution. In truth, vouchers would take much-needed tax revenue from public schools where the vast majority of Texas students will continue to be educated, including thousands of those low-income, inner city kids about whom Patrick claims to be so concerned. The beneficiaries from Patrick’s plan would be private school owners, the businesses and financial institutions involved in the “tax credit scholarship” transactions and a relative handful of students, many of whom already are attending private schools and whose parents would get a tuition break with everyone’s tax dollars.
Texas historically has spent less money educating its children than most states, and thanks to the 2011 budget cuts now spends several hundred dollars less per child than it did four years ago.
If Patrick really wants to help those inner city kids – and all other Texas students – he would take the lead in drafting an overhaul of the current school finance system, which a state district judge has ruled inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional. A strong Texas economy is pumping billions of extra tax dollars into the state treasury, including the Rainy Day Fund, which means education funding could be significantly improved without raising anyone’s existing taxes.
But so far, Patrick has proposed tax cuts that would make it harder to fund our schools, peddled vouchers and engaged in some public hand-wringing over public education, while ignoring real solutions.