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Dewhurst Declares Support for School Choice Legislation

Texas Senate

WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, throwing some red meat to conservatives after his bruising defeat at the hands of Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, has put private school vouchers and expanded “parental choice” back on the legislative agenda.

Speaking to delegates at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, Dewhurst said he would work with state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to hammer out the details of the proposal.

Dewhurst made it clear that he supports the voucher concept, though he said that is just one of many options to pursue.

“I personally don’t have any problem with a program in which children’s parents receive a payment from the state and are able to select which school that they go to,” Dewhurst said.

“I’m willing to look at more choice for more parents. It’s early, too early, to talk about what form that may take, whether it could be payments, whether it could be tax credits, whether it could be more charters schools,” he said.

Included in that conversation would be the “conversion of public schools” into charter schools, the lieutenant governor said.

Patrick, a longtime backer of voucher programs, recently led an interim committee hearing on the topic. Witnesses testified that the competition such programs fostered increased options for parents and created a better marketplace for teachers while improving traditional public schools by challenging them to attract and retain students. Patrick recently likened the coming push to pass such reforms — a movement lent momentumby Gov. Rick Perry's recent appointment of former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams to lead the Texas Education Agency — to "the photo ID bill of this session."

Education associations in the state uniformly oppose private school vouchers, which they see as an attempt to dismantle the public school system by diverting state money into privately operated enterprises at the expense of the neediest students. There will be a "tough fight" over such legislation during the next session, said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.

"Instead of doing what they should do, just go up and see that public schools are adequately funded, the legislative majority tries to play around with these various schemes, and they are encouraged by the people who stand to benefit from these schemes," he said. "They'll do anything, it seems, rather than to direct the issue head on."   

The bid to get vouchers back into the policy discussion appears to be part of a concerted effort by Dewhurst to shore up his conservative bonafides after losing the Senate nomination to Cruz. Dewhurst announced Monday that staunch conservative Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee in the upcoming session.

Dewhurst's comments also reflect his increasingly close relationship with Patrick, who is one of two likely candidates to lead the Senate Education Committee. Though known to cross swords during the legislative session — particularly after Patrick publicly accused Dewhurst of holding up his bill that would have prohibited "invasive searches" by Transportation Security Administration officials — the pair appeared to have made amends when Patrick endorsed Dewhurst in the Senate race and campaigned vigorously to get him elected. 

But they could have reason to renew their rivalry again. The lieutenant governor also announced Tuesday that he planned to run for re-election in 2014. That could set up a clash with other hopeful statewide candidates — possibly Patrick — who are anxious to move up the political ladder.

Morgan Smith reported from Austin. Jay Root reported from Wesley Chapel, Fla.

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.
Jay Root is a native of Liberty. He never knew any reporters growing up, and he has never taken a journalism class in his life. But somehow he got hooked on the news business. It all started when he walked into the offices of The Daily Texan, his college newspaper, during his last year at the University of Texas in 1987. He couldn't the resist the draw: it was the the biggest collection of misfits ever assembled. After graduating, he took a job at a Houston chemical company and realized it wasn't for him. Soon he was applying for an unpaid internship at the Houston Post in 1990, and it turned into a full-time job that same year. He has been a reporter ever since. He has covered natural disasters, live music and Texas politics — not necessarily in that order. He was Austin bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a dozen years, most of them good. He also covered politics and the Legislature for The Associated Press before joining the staff of the Tribune.
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