Patrick: School Choice A Top Priority in 2017

By Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday vowed to pass a bigger and better tax credit scholarship program — and possibly other school choice legislation — out of the Senate in 2017, saying school choice remains his top policy priority aside from “protecting life.”

Last year, the Republican shepherded legislation through the upper chamber that would’ve provided up to $100 million in tax credits to businesses that donated scholarship money to public school students to help pay tuition at private or parochial schools. But the bill died in the House, which historically has opposed such voucher-like proposals.

As a former state senator and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Patrick — elected lieutenant governor in 2014 — unsuccessfully pushed for a private school voucher program, a more divisive concept that gives state money directly to public school students for private school tuition.

Speaking during an education policy panel Thursday that also featured Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison and former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, Patrick said the next version of school choice legislation the Senate will consider may be modeled after programs the Nevada Legislature passed last year, one of which gives state money directly to parents who want to remove their children from public school and send them to alternative schools — or homeschool them.  (The program is being challenged in court on multiple fronts, including by a group of parents who argue the program is unconstitutional because it diverts public money to private interests.)

“I didn’t come this far to come this far,” Patrick told a luncheon crowd at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Orientation. “We will pass this bill this session. It will be a better bill next time, incorporating some of the things Nevada has done.”

Through its program, he said, Nevada has “closed the gap for the students who are poorer to be able to get to those private schools.”

But Patrick emphasized he wanted to make any school choice program “available for every parent, as they’ve done in Nevada,” not just a small percentage, as is true in some states with scholarship programs that target low-income families. And he said he believes there will be enough support in the House for it to pass.

Hutchison, a Republican, told the crowd that 96 percent of public students are eligible to participate under Nevada's program versus 12 percent in states like Florida. Along with its “Education Savings Account Program,” the Nevada Legislature last year passed an “Educational Choice Scholarship Program” that gives tax credits to businesses when they donate money to organizations that distribute the funds to students from lower-income families to help pay private school tuition.

Hutchison boasted that the state’s Legislature, which saw a GOP sweep in the 2014 elections, passed the legislation despite widespread opposition from the school community, including teachers and administrators.

“Everyone opposed us,” he said.

In an impassioned speech that roused the loudest applause of Thursday’s panel, Patrick said there is “an epidemic of failing schools in the state,” and described a school choice program as the solution to that problem.

Opponents of such policies say schools are struggling because state lawmakers have underfunded them. (The state currently is waiting on the Texas Supreme Court to rule on its appeal of a 2014 ruling that struck down its method of funding public schools as inadequate and unconstitutional.)

Rep. Dwayne Bohac, a Houston Republican who attended the Thursday panel, said he thinks the House would’ve passed the Senate’s tax credit scholarship bill “overwhelmingly” last year — if it had made it to the floor for a vote. Instead, it died in the House Ways and Means Committee.

He emphasized that the concept was “not a voucher” and said it would have disproportionally helped poor and minority students.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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