Patrick pushes Texas school choice scholarships

Mar 9, 2013 by

Sen. Dan Patrick

Sen. Dan Patrick

Public school students could get help paying for private school under legislation filed Friday that is the cornerstone of a sweeping “school choice” agenda championed by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

Senate Bill 23 would create an “opportunity scholarship” program funded through private donations from businesses that in turn would get state tax credits for their donations.

“Several hundred thousand students are stuck in low-performing schools today. This should not be acceptable to anyone,” Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said in a statement. “Senate Bill 23 gives low-income families the ability to seek out the best educational options for their children.”

The scholarship program would be open to students at risk of dropping out of school or whose family income falls below 200 percent of the free or reduced school lunch program threshold. For a family of four in Texas, the income ceiling for the scholarship would be about $85,000.

Scholarships would go first to students who attend a school deemed “unacceptable” under the state’s accountability system. The amount of the scholarship would equal 80 percent of the statewide per-student funding.

Businesses donating to the scholarship fund would receive a credit on their franchise tax bill for the amount of the donation or 15 percent of their tax liability, whichever is less.

“It is appalling to see such legislation filed that would create a corporate tax loophole and voucher scholarships to divert critical dollars into an experimental voucher program to subsidize private education,” said Julie Haney of the Coalition for Public Schools, which includes teachers groups, child advocates and religious organizations.

There were questions earlier this week about who would file the legislation. Patrick had said publicly that state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, would carry the bill but a Lucio aide later said his boss would not be involved. Freshmen Republican Sens. Ken Paxton of McKinney and Donna Campbell of New Braunfels have filed similar bills.

Both Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have come out in support of the scholarship tax credit, but House Speaker Joe Straus and other House leaders have shown no eagerness to instigate a fight over the issue. There is also resistance among some senators, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Prospects appear dim for SB 23 to pass as a stand-alone bill, but there are plenty of education-related bills upon which the program could hitch a ride as an amendment.

Supporters say the scholarship tax credits differ from private school vouchers, which are direct transfers of public dollars. But critics call such distinctions irrelevant, meant to create some distance from the politically unpopular voucher idea.

Similar programs were available in 11 other states as of last fall.

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