AUSTIN -- Parents, students and advocates marched by the hundreds up to the Texas Capitol steps, cheering and hoisting signs proclaiming National School Choice Week.
One of the key speakers was newly-elected Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, himself a former teacher who went on to chair a network of public charter schools in North Texas.
"Right out of college I taught at an inner-city high school, and I have many sad stories to share with you," Bush told the audience gathered Friday. "Probably the most tragic is that as a country we spend more per student than any other country in the world, but yet our standards and are accountability measures are falling further and further behind."
"The current system pretty much is the definition of insanity, we keep doing the same thing over and over," said former South Dallas public school teacher Daniel Serralde, who attended the school choice rally with his daughter. Serralde is now North Texas field director for the Libre Initiative.
"We had 67 percent at-risk kids. One in ten of my kids were going to drop out of school," said Serralde, who believes those students' parents would have gladly opted for alternate school options if they had been available. State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) hopes to provide just such opportunities, and has filed a bill in the 84th Texas Legislature with that aim.
"Choice works. It works in the private sector. It works in the public sector and it empowers parents, which is who you want to empower because they're the ultimate customers," said Bohac, author of House Bill 1043.
"The bill I'm carrying is a tax credit scholarship bill," said Bohac. "It allows corporations that are paying our state franchise tax to take a credit against their taxes which is put in a certain fund that's administered by the state that helps the poorest of the poor. It's a bill focused on justice and fairness and it helps kids going to really bad schools escape from those really bad schools."
Characterizing the proposal as a "beta test," Bohac says the fund is limited to $100 million and would provide a positive fiscal benefit to the state. It's similar to a bill championed last session by then-state Sen. Dan Patrick which died in the Texas House of Representatives.
Many school choice supporters hope with Patrick now presiding over the Texas Senate as lieutenant governor, things may go better this time around. Of course the bill will face the same questions it did last session. While supporters argue the money would not be taken from funds that would otherwise have gone to public schools, opponents say it's simply a voucher program under a different name.
"Those were all dollars that would have otherwise ended up in the state coffers that were simply getting diverted before they got to the state," said Monty Exter with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, which lobbies for public school teachers and administrators.
School choice supporters are also placing high hopes on the efforts of state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), who whipped the crowd into rounds of enthusiastic chants Friday morning. Campbell's Senate Bill 276 would allow parents to be reimbursed for private school tuition in an amount 60 percent or less than the state average maintenance and operations expenditures per student. The bill specifies that money from the available school fund cannot be used for reimbursed.
"I believe we have the momentum," said Campbell, who suggests making state money available for private schools and fixing the public school system is not a zero-sum game. A district judge declared the public school finance system unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable in 2014, and lawmakers are now waiting for the case to make its way to the Texas Supreme Court before attempting to overhaul the system.
"Just because we're promoting school choice, doesn't mean that we're still not 100 percent in there to try to fix the parts of our public school system that are broken," said Campbell. "One does not negate the other."
"We do have to look at the financing of our schools, so we also know that money has been put in over the last decade, more and more money, but that performance has been flat. We need to fix that, and I think that's to your point. We're not ready at all to not help public schools. We're there to lift everybody's boat, if you will, on education."
Public school advocates note that the vast majority of the more than five million students in Texas will continue to rely on the public school system, which Exter says is already fertile ground for expanding options.
"The majority of school choice is actually still within the traditional public school system," said Exter. "There you're talking about options like open enrollment policies which most major districts have, things like magnet schools, specialty campuses like the Ann Richards campus here in Austin."
"We just want to make sure that they are living up to the same standard as the other traditional schools."
Exter suggests taxpayers should think twice before allowing public funds to go to private schools, which are exempt from the formal accountability and transparency requirements to which public schools are subject. On the other hand, proponents of more school choice argue competition in education will drive innovation in both the private and public sectors.
"Charter schools do great things, traditional schools do great things," said Bohac, who hopes each can learn from the other. One thing on which those on all sides of the education debate seem to agree, lawmakers need to have a serious conversation about how to improve Texas' performance when it comes to educating its children.
"It's not a one-size fits all," said Serralde. "School choice is part of the solution. It's definitely something we need to look into to expand, but it's also a matter of teacher accountability and administration accountability."