State Senator Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, fired something of a warning shot two weeks ago when he announced a renewed push for school choice, both in the form of vouchers and expanded charter offerings.
"To me, school choice is the photo ID bill of this session," Patrick told the Houston Chronicle "Our base has wanted us to pass photo voter ID for years, and we did it. They've been wanting us to pass school choice for years. This is the year to do it, in my view. That issue will do more to impact the future of Texas and the quality of education than anything else we could do."
He began laying the groundwork for a legislative push this morning, leading a hearing of the Senate Education Committee to gather testimony on the impact of vouchers on other states.
Exactly how the program would be implemented in Texas is unclear, since there isn't a bill yet, but, at a basic level, a voucher program works by paying private school tuition for students whose parents shun public schools, most typically because they aren't very good.
"No student should be locked into a poor performing school because that happens to be where they live," Patrick told the Austin American-Statesman. "I'm a big supporter of public education, and we have a lot of schools that are doing a great job, but we must also recognize the truth that we have a lot of schools that are not performing at the level that they need to be."
What is clear is that vouchers of any stripe will be controversial. Republicans have introduced voucher bills during every legislative session since 1995, and they have failed each time.
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Public school advocates like the Texas Parent's Union and the Texas Freedom Network are already sounding the alarm. TFN spokesman Jose Medina said there are practical worries about whether private schools can handle an influx of students, whether they face the same level of accountability as public schools.
There are constitutional concerns as well about directing money toward overtly religious schools. He points to reports from Louisiana that religious doctrine is routinely and openly taught to voucher students.
The central irony for Texas is that legislators just finished slashing billions from the public education, which would only shrink further if the state began paying for kids to go to private school. This, presumably, has a negative affect on public schools, prompting more parents to opt for vouchers.
The first shots were fired today, but it won't begin in earnest until January.