AUSTIN -- Some unusual guests paid a visit to elementary students Wednesday morning at the Cathedral School of Saint Mary in downtown Austin.
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), chair of the Senate Committee on Education, chose the private Catholic school as the backdrop to roll out their goals for education reform in 2013. Their chief proposal is legislation which would create a private school scholarship fund by offering businesses franchise tax credits for pitching in.
"This does not take money from public education," Patrick told a room full of media and representatives from a score of education advocacy groups. "School districts will still get the same amount of money they would receive today based on whatever the formulas are that given year."
Acknowledging that donations to the private school scholarship fund would allow businesses to reduce their franchise tax contributions, Patrick suggests that districts would retain the property tax-based funding regardless of whether students living within a district's border attend school there or elsewhere. Any such initiative would likely begin as a small pilot program, which Dewhurst believes would be prove the initiative's viability.
Also on the agenda:
- Raising the cap on charter schools
- Allowing students to enroll in their choice of public schools regardless of district lines
- Assigning letter grades to schools based on performance
- Closing down under-performing schools after two years
- Reducing the amount of end-of-course (EOC) exams required for graduation
- Increasing the number of Career and Technology Education (CTE) programs
"Public schools and school choice is the key to unlocking the door of opportunity for all children," said Dewhurst. Neither Dewhurst nor Patrick specifically mentioned "school vouchers," a topic many suspect is likely to become a hot issue once the 83rd Texas Legislature convenes January 8.
Outside the event, not all were supportive.
"The citizens of Texas are guaranteed a free and efficient public education -- not vouchers, not charters, not private anything," said Austin resident Monica Guzman. Public education advocates held a separate news conference Wednesday afternoon at the State Capitol to voice opposition to the tax credit proposal.
"It is just a backdoor voucher," said Charles Johnson, a Fort Worth pastor and president of the Coalition for Public Schools, an advocacy group opposed to private school vouchers. "We see this as a voucher because this is money and revenue that would otherwise be going to the state coffers."
Johnson argues that such a program would decrease funds available to Texas schools by diverting revenue in the form of franchise tax receipts that could be used to fund public education. President Tom Archer of public funding advocacy group Our Values, Our Texas argues Dewhurst and Patricks' proposals miss the larger point that significantly improved revenue estimates provide an opportunity to reverse deep cuts made to education.
"If you restore those cuts for $5.4 billion, and you restore Medicaid for $5 billion, that's $10.4 billion," Archer told KVUE. "You would be able to accomplish both of those objectives, still have money left over and not touch the Rainy Day Fund. That is an indicator of the money we have to address the critical state problems that we face in our state."
Dewhurst told KVUE he expects future funding to at least match enrollment growth, and that much hangs on the Texas Supreme Court's final decision regarding the state lawsuit over school finance.
"Right now we're waiting to hear what the Texas Supreme Court says," said Dewhurst. "Whatever they say, we're going to salute, and we're going to continue to put the resources into public education and have the accountability, because we want a great education for every child."
The battle over precisely how to accomplish that will soon begin.