Tuesday, the state of Texas' heaviest hitters, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, put their weight firmly behind an issue both have identified as a priority for the 2017 legislative session, school choice. Both leaders are pushing for the legislature to pass a bill that would create education savings accounts, which would give parents who pull their kids out of public schools taxpayer money to send their kids to a private school, home-school their kids or pay for other education expenses. Abbott and Paxton say the accounts are essential to making sure that parents choose the direction of their children's education.
"I know Lt. Gov. Patrick and legislative leaders from both the House and the Senate have been working on a school choice law," Abbott said at a state capitol rally celebrating National School Choice Week. "I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk. And when it does, I will make the choice to sign it and authorize school choice in the state of Texas."
In past legislative sessions, urban Democrats and rural Republicans have banded together to stop Texas from adopting school vouchers, which, like the proposed savings accounts, would allow public money to go toward paying tuition at private and parochial schools.
In 2013, a bill pushed by then state Senator Patrick and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst died after the Texas House voted 103-43 for a budget amendment that banned the use of public money for private school tuition. Two years later, in 2015, Patrick again pushed for vouchers, guiding a bill through the Texas Senate. His efforts were stymied, however, when the Texas House failed to vote on the bill.
This year, Patrick vowed Tuesday, things are going to be different. "We want a vote up or down in the Senate and in the House this session on school choice. It's easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it," Patrick told a cheering crowd clad in the yellow scarves that have come to mark the annual school choice rally.
Abbott was a no-show at the Choice Week rally in 2015, but he was front and center Tuesday morning, signalling that the state's leadership is fully behind expanding the ways in which parents can spend the state money earmarked for their kids' education.
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If that happens, opponents of expanded school choice say, the state's public schools could be in trouble.
Dallas ISD Board Trustee and former teacher Miguel Solis argues that the accounts would funnel resources away from school districts.
"What they're trying to do is create a secondary funding system for private schools and charter schools under the guise of this panacea marketing strategy where parents are sold on the idea that anything other than traditional public schools are what is going to allow a child to be successful," Solis says.
Under Solis and former Superintendent Mike Miles, Dallas ISD has worked over the last several years to offer some more public school choices to students. In addition to the district's longstanding magnet schools, Dallas ISD has added schools that have similar focuses to magnet programs without the high admissions standards.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor is currently drafting the senate version of this year's school choice bill. It will be assigned Texas Senate Bill No. 3, indicating the priority Patrick, who presides over the state's upper chamber, places on it.