Last night in Austin, state Rep. Sid Miller laid out a novel solution for Texas's troubled school budget: the Taxpayer Savings Grants Program, a reward of nearly $5,000 for any parents who'll do us all a solid and take their kids out of public school.
Under Miller's plan, parents would get 60 percent of the money their local school district would've spent on their kid to put toward private school tuition instead (more than enough, with diplomas going for $399), while the state keeps the other 40 percent of the money for itself. "It takes students out of the system, leaving the same pile of money for less students," said the Republican from Stephenville.
Leaving aside the fact that the state's pile of money would, in fact, not be the same, Miller acknowledged his bill amounts to a statewide school voucher plan, "an old idea in a new way," he said.
That old idea wasn't popular enough to be considered during the Legislature's regular session that ended late last month -- hasn't even seen a vote on the House floor since it was shot down in 2005 -- but in the GOP free-for-all of a special session we're in now, it's chugging right along in the House Government Efficiency & Reform Committee.
One could probably make the argument that the House Public Education Committee ought to hear a bill about pulling students from the public schools system -- but Miller came ready to argue vouchers are just good money sense. "Call it whatever you want, it's something we've been doing for a long time in Texas," he said, comparing the program to state-funded grants for students at private colleges.
Anyway, Miller said, school districts around the state have been paying to get people off their payrolls for months, only "it wasn't for students to leave the district, it was for teachers to leave the district."
Describing his bill for the committee, Miller promised all kinds of advantages -- vouchers would save teacher jobs in the short term, he said, and help drive up public teacher salaries in the long term, once competition with private schools set in. Then, of course, students leaving the public school system would need someone to handle all the new demand. "We'll actually create teacher jobs in the private sector," Miller said.
Miller, no friend of the ladies, or, incidentally, the feral hogs, delivered a rapid-fire, often self-contradictory sales pitch last night (watch it here, starting around 2:45:00) promising an overall improvement in the quality of education thanks to lower class sizes, then conceding his bill would affect "the low income, the impoverished and the minorities that are in the failing schools, overall, not in a positive amount." But Miller stuck to his guns. "I don't have a problem rewarding high achieving schools and making the less productive schools have to compete for students."
In rural districts where there just aren't that many schools outside the public system, Miller said his plan would be "a windfall," because the statewide savings -- about $850 million per year, he estimated -- would mean $220 more per student in public schools.
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Miller discounted an estimate from the Legislative Budget Board that suggested the state would actually lose money the first two years, saying he'd fixed the problem. Still, while Miller estimated six percent of Texas' public school students would take vouchers, the Texas Education Agency's estimate is far lower: less than one percent.
Dan Quinn at the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin group that's long been critical of school voucher plans, tells Unfair Park that Miller's appearance with the voucher bill, before a committee that isn't focused on education, was "kind of bizarre" last night. "It's a farce," Quinn says. "Taking money out of public schools is going to save teachers jobs. How's that possible?"
As one piece of pro-voucher evidence, Miller argued that a 10-year private voucher experiment in San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District from 1998 to 2008 led to a huge improvement in the district. But Quinn says Edgewood's schools only really improved from around 1993 to 1997, after a budget move that gave the district more money. "It's very misleading when they claim that all this progress was made there, because all the hard work happened before the voucher program got there."
While the Plano-based Liberty Institute, right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation and San Antonio's Justice Foundation are all backing Miller's efforts, Quinn says vouchers are less of a partisan issue than many of the others before the Legislature now. For now, lawmakers left Miller's bill sitting in committee, though it could still get tacked onto another budget measure as an amendement too.