AUSTIN -- In January's State of the State address, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) laid out his major policy goals for the session. High on the list was legislation aimed to create tax incentives to benefit private schools.
"It's also time to introduce scholarship programs that gives students a choice, especially those who are locked into low performing schools," Perry told representatives and senators of the 83rd Texas Legislature.
The plan proposed by Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and backed by both Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) would create a business tax credit for companies that choose to contribute to a scholarship program for students to attend private schools.
Opponents have compared the idea to private school vouchers, which were struck a crippling blow during Thursday's budget debate. An amendment introduced by Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) blocking public tax dollars from private schools cleared the Republican controlled House by a vote of 103 to 43.
"I think the legislature sent a message last night that we need to continue to focus our main efforts on traditional public schools," said House Public Education Committee chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen).
"I think the House has traditionally been hesitant to bless giving taxpayer money to private schools, and I think the message last night was that that's still very much the sentiment in the House," Aycock told KVUE. "I think the message was pretty loud."
During the anti-voucher amendment debate, a number of lawmakers voiced concern over diverting tax money away from public schools at a time when lawmakers from both parties are working to restore at least some of the $5.4 billion cut during the previous session.
"The fact that we have recently reduced funding to traditional schools makes it more difficult to send some of that money somewhere else still," said Aycock, adding, "People come to realize that if you magically doubled charters, if you magically doubled private schools, and you magically doubled home school, the vast majority of students would still be in traditional school settings."
"We're very pleased," Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association said of the bipartisan vote. "They recognize it's bad public policy, and it's particularly absurd right now when they haven't even finished restoring the funding to public schools."
The House budget increases public education funding by $2.5 billion over enrollment growth, and a coming supplemental budget is expected to add an additional $500 million. While the lower chamber's version adds more money than the budget approved by the Senate, public education advocates continue to push for a full restoration of the cuts made in 2011.
"It's not enough. It still short-changes Texas school children because there is enough money in the rainy day fund to cover the rest," said Robison. "If they don't repair the damage that they did two years ago, if they don't finish closing the cuts, then that deficit will remain there."
"I'm really disappointed that anyone would vote against the parents' right to choose where their kids go to school," said Peggy Venable with conservative Americans for Prosperity of Texas. "I think it really shows that the education lobby has tremendous control over the legislature. Let's face it, they're using our money and they're lobbying hard for more money, less accountability and no competition."
"They will have some explaining to do back home," Venable warned of Republican lawmakers who voted in favor of the amendment. "Eighty-four plus percent of the Republican primary voters voted for school choice, voted for the dollars to follow the child to the school their parents choose, public or private. So they actually were voting against their district."
Asked whether he expects any political blow back over the vote, Aycock said the two conversations he's had with the governor this session touched on affordable college education and strengthening career and technical programs, with no mention of private school vouchers.
"He hasn't pressed me on any of those issues at this point," said Aycock. "There might be future conversations coming, I don't know, but right now I'm staying focused on traditional school, and trying to improve traditional school quality and get kids ready for jobs and or college."
"We've seen this for twenty plus years," said state Rep. Larry Gonzales, one of the 43 who voted in opposition. "The variables change, the members change, the tone of the body changes, where we are as a society has changed. But one thing has remained very clear in that body for a long time, which is they're just anti-school choice."
Some have noted the wording of the Amendment specifies funds intended for the Texas Education Agency, arguing Patrick's legislation targeting the business tax for private school scholarships may be technically exempt. At the same time, Thursday's vote may have signaled a general opposition to any such legislation in the House.
"Every child needs to be in an environment that they can excel in, and sometimes that's not the predetermined public school of their neighborhood," said Gonzales.
While conceding the amendment vote was a major setback for school choice advocates, he says the issue isn't completely dead.
"There are still other bills at play, and there are other ideas in play," said Gonzales. "I still think that if you put together a bill, not an amendment, but a bill, with specifics, a specific plans with specific instructions, you might get a longer conversation out of that. You might get more members with that."