CAPITOL RINGSIDE: School choice issue faces a showdown in Texas Senate

When Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed State Sen. Dan Patrick as the Chair of the Committee on Education it was for the purpose of making a giant change in public education policy.

Senator Patrick, a radio talk show host from Houston, has long held that public schools in Texas are bloated, bureaucratic places where tax dollars are squandered and children’s education is NOT the top priority. He is one of the founders of the Tea Party Caucus in Texas and believes that education vouchers are the answer to at least some of the ills that he sees afflicting public schools.

Now whether you agree with the fundamental idea behind public education vouchers or not, the concept is coming to the floor of the Texas Senate for a vote this year. For proof, look no further than the new public ed chair and how quickly his predecessor was removed.

The Lt. Governor removed Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, from the Public Ed chairmanship that she had held for many years because of her well-known opposition to vouchers. School districts across the state have held her in high regard for refusing to allow a voucher bill to leave her committee during her lengthy career in the Senate.

When U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Dewhurst in the Republican Primary, it was seen as a wake-up call for Republican officeholders. All during the campaign cycle, Dewhurst was publicly ridiculed for not being conservative enough and for being a closeted political moderate. Vouchers were on a short list of demands from the conservative side of Texas politics and Sen. Zaffirini’s chair position had to be sacrificed. Now, Sen. Patrick is promising to bring a voucher bill to the floor of the Senate where his Republican colleagues hold a clear majority.

In case you have forgotten, school voucher is a term used to describe a recapture process whereby parents would be able to take a portion of the tax dollars we have all paid and put their child in a private or religious school or even another public school they believed might provide a higher quality education.

Some conservative Republicans have long believed that taxpayers, students and parents were stuck in a cycle where there is a lack of educational choice. In other states, private corporations and religious institutions have gotten in the education business and have enjoyed being subsidized in part by education vouchers.

Teacher unions, public school districts and Democrats have all claimed for years that a public education that is available to all students is illustrative of the finest curriculum instruction that can be found. They also point to the all-important socialization that comes from the vast cross-section of students found in public schools. They believe that the way to improve public education is through an objective curriculum, limiting classroom size, boosting teacher pay and providing school infrastructure.

Regardless of where you stand politically, the winds of change are blowing in the Capitol and even rural and suburban communities will not be immune from this volatile issue in 2013.

If a meaningful piece of voucher legislation manages to be passed, then the millions of dollars in new money available will no doubt bring private schools to even the smallest communities.

School choice is the bumper sticker slogan for people who believe public schools aren’t performing. These folks believe public schools teach to the standardized tests and spend too much time coddling bad students. They also believe good old-fashioned capitalism and open religious instruction will change the face of education and only the best schools operated by corporations will survive.

Liberty Hill taxpayers are deeply invested in a new public high school that was constructed on the idea that our community was sitting on the edge of a population explosion. We knew that in the beginning there would not be enough students to fill up the new school, but we were gambling on the future turning out a certain way.

We were also gambling that when those thousands of families relocated here they would buy a nice home in the school district and bring their tax dollars with them. Let’s hope the Texas Legislature doesn’t pass a law that will send students scurrying to various private and religious schools and leave our investment standing half empty while we struggle to make the payments.

 ~ Charley Wilkison

Co-owner of The Independent and

Public Affairs Director for Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas