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Texas Senate Considers School 'Voucher' Bills, Despite House Ban (Update)

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

UPDATE 5:59 The Senate Committee on Education heard SB 1575 this afternoon from educators and parents supporting the so-called voucher program that would give parents money to move their children from public to private schools. 

The bill’s author Senator Donna Campbell of New Braunfels said that parents and students should have a choice in schooling and claim that failing public schools set back children across the state.

“Education is the great equalizer. This is the civil rights issue of our time. Should any child really not be afforded the same opportunity in education?” 

Campbell said that the bill could save the state one and a half billion dollars within five years if passed. 

The bill was left pending in the committee.

EARLIER: The Senate Education Committee heard fiery testimony this morning on a bill that would allow businesses to get tax credits for creating scholarships to send disadvantaged students to private schools.

It’s not clear whether those tax credits would be considered voucher plans like those banned by House lawmakers last week. The House voted overwhelmingly to ban using public money to fund private schools.

Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff pushed for charter grants in 1995 during his tenure, but he agreed with House lawmakers who expressed frustration that the state isn’t even doing enough to fund public schools.

“Public education dollars…are so scarce that we had to take 5.4 billion dollars – and it’s more like 8 billion dollars over the past 6 years that we have underfunded public schools,” Ratliff said. “Why would we take that money and send it to private schools for the voucher system? I don’t understand that.”

Committee Chair Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) debated whether it was appropriate to fund charter schools after the $5.4 billion in cuts to schools last session.

“We had $8.8 billion more last session in our budget than we thought we had. And had we known it then, would we have made a different decision as it comes to funding public schools? I like to think we would have on a bipartisan basis,” said Davis.

Patrick told Davis that the cuts were a product of a budget shortfall and an insistence to preserve the Rainy Day Fund.

“Your solution must be an income tax, raising sales taxes or raising property taxes,” Patrick said. “Money does not come out of thin air, Senator.”

EARLIER: The Texas Senate Education Committee is set to discuss a high profile bill today.

State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) chairs the education committee and is a leading "school choice" advocate. He filed SB 23 – which would give a 15 percent state tax credit to businesses across the state that donate to scholarships aimed at helping disadvantaged students go to private schools.

Senators are holding a public hearing on the bill despite a strong blow lashed against school vouchers by the Texas House of Representatives last week. The House overwhelming approved an amendment to its budget last week that bans public money from being used to fund private schools.

It's not clear if Patrick's plan would be banned under that amendment.

Another bill up for discussion today in the Senate Education Committee also aims to expand school choice in Texas.

State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) authored SB 1575. It would reimburse parents for a portion of the state’s cost to educate their children so they could attend private schools.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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