Texas GOP stars push school choice, but will it be enough?

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The governor of Texas and the Bush family’s rising star added political muscle Tuesday to a rally supporting school vouchers, which have stalled repeatedly in the country’s largest Republican state despite steadfast support from top conservatives.

Marching bands with thundering drumlines and hundreds of students and teachers – many in yellow-and-black “National School Choice Week” scarfs – converged outside the Texas Capitol. Gov. Greg Abbott made a relatively rare appearance with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite who has long been Texas’ leading advocate for vouchers where families get state money to remove children from public schools and send them to private and religious alternatives.

“This is not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democrat issue,” Abbott said. “This is a civil rights issue.”

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia offer some form of vouchers, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, and academic studies show mixed classroom results that can be similar to those of traditional public schools. The issue may also soon take center stage nationally with Donald Trump’s selection of Michigan billionaire and vocal advocate of taxpayer-funded school vouchers Betsy DeVos as his new administration’s education secretary.

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Texas’ rally coincided with similar “National School Choice Week” gatherings in other states. Though most lawmakers expect DeVos to have little direct influence on Texas policy, state Senate budget writers have already begun discussed how much funding will be needed to educate the state’s 5.3 million public school students. Texas currently spends about $2,700 per-pupil under the national average, ranking 38th in funding nationwide, according to the Texas State Teachers Association.

Kathy Miller, president of the education watchdog group Texas Freedom Network said Tuesday that vouchers “are a scheme that strips critical funds from public schools and gives a discount to individuals who can already afford private school.”

In 2013, Texas dramatically expanded its number of public charter schools. Still, advocates say waitlists of children hoping to attend them continues to exceed 100,000 – and suggest that vouchers could fill that void. Many of the students participating in the Capitol rally were visiting from charter schools around the state.

“This is not a war on public education,” Patrick said. He said vouchers don’t “take money from the education system” because public schools will cut costs by no longer having to educate students who transfer to private alternatives.

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Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush also is a longtime school choice supporter. The grandson of one former president, nephew of another and son of failed 2016 White House hopeful Jeb Bush, George P. once served on the board of one of Texas’ largest charter school operators. He applauded other speakers but didn’t address the crowd himself Tuesday – unlike during past rallies.

Last session, a sweeping voucher plan passed the Texas Senate, but died in the House, where Democrats have long teamed with rural Republicans wary of hurting schools that are the lifeblood of their small communities to keep public money in public schools. The Senate this year is promoting “educational savings accounts” letting families use public money for private schooling, as well as tax breaks for businesses that sponsor private school scholarships.

So far, though, there is little indication such plans will be any better received in Texas’ lower chamber than in the past.

“Traditionally, the members of the House have not supported spending taxpayer dollars at private schools,” Jason Embry, a spokesman for Republican Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, said Tuesday “and there are many questions to be answered on this issue in the months ahead.”