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School choice finishes committee hearing By Lora-Marie Bernard


THE SENATE education committee explored two approaches at a Thursday hearing that would divert government revenue to qualifying parents so they send their children to private schools.
School choice has been promoted by some in the Texas legislature as a means to improve education and to help remove children from failing schools. Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood, who chairs the education committee, has said funding school choice could help some parents with children in embattled La Marque ISD.
Two controversial mechanisms are being considered. Each would earmark public education dollars as  tuition assistance to parents. The funds could be used for private school tuition.
One bill, introduced by New Braunfels senator Donna Campbell, directly transfers tax revenue to parents. Parents with qualifying students would receive 60 per cent of the cost of educating a student, or about $5200. They can apply that fund to a private or parochial school. Senate Bill 276 would divert the rest of the money to the general fund rather than dedicated to public education.
The second bill creates an indirect shifting of state funds. SB 642, by Houston senator Paul Bettencourt, would capture money before it is ever collected as taxes. The bill seeks to let businesses deduct donations made to non-profit scholarship organizations from their total tax liability. They would be allowed to write off up to 50 percent of their total tax burden through these donations.
Bettencourt’s bill would favor low- and middle-income families. Families that make up to 225 percent of the Free and Reduced Lunch threshold, or about $80,000 per year, could apply for these scholarships. Poorer families would get more money, up to 75 per cent of the daily cost of educating a child in a public school.
Advocate argue the mechanisms could work because parents are best equipped to choose where their children should get an education.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick appeared before the committee to promote the school choice measures. He argued that school choice already exists in Texas for people who have enough money and the mechanisms would expand the amount of families who could have options.
“For a large number of our families, they don’t have the money for private school, and they don’t have the mobility to move to the suburbs because they take a bus to work,” Patrick said.
He said the vast majority of students will always use the public school system and that the measures would help low-income families give their children an education they could not otherwise afford.
Critics, such as the Association of Texas Professional Educators, have said they would oppose both bills. They argue that when the Texas education budget is adjusted for inflation and student growth, the state now spends less per pupil than it did in 2006. The current measures would divert more funding from underperforming public schools and not improve the situation.
“Vouchers divert taxpayer dollars to private schools that do not face the same accountability standards required of public schools,” Gary Godsey, executive director for the organization said in a statement released on Thursday following the public hearing.
“Two of the biggest fallacies regarding vouchers are that they provide choice and improve opportunities for children from low-income families. However, the choice that really matters is the choice made by private schools regarding whether to admit a student. Vouchers do little to help the poor because they often do not cover the full cost of tuition, fees, uniforms, books and transportation,” he said.

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