Thursday, February 03, 2005

Speaker Craddick and Vouchers

Houston Rep Would Hand Vouchers to All

Web Posted: 02/03/2005 12:00 AM CST

W. Gardner Selby
Express-News Austin Bureau

AUSTIN — Nearly every Texas child, including those taught at home, would qualify for school vouchers if a Houston legislator has her way, though House and Senate leaders have yet to insert money for private school options into major education reform proposals.

Rep. Debbie Riddle has been drafting a proposal authorizing school vouchers for all children who are legal residents of Texas, starting at $5,500 a year.

A yet-to-be determined amount of funding would come from the state or other unspecified sources, according to a summary, and parents could bank unspent money in a state account in their child's name.

Some 4.3 million children attend the state's public schools, 241,000 are privately schooled and more than 100,000 taught at home, according to government estimates.

Riddle, a Republican who partly home-schooled two of her three children, said Wednesday: "God gave the children to the parents, not to the state. Parents have every right to make the choice as to what is best for their children — and not just parents who can write a check."

School voucher proposals have been lofted in Texas for at least a decade, though none has been written into law. Observers say the idea likely will be debated afresh, though neither a House leadership plan expected today nor an outline of a Senate package includes the option.

Bill Ratliff, a lobbyist and former acting lieutenant governor, attempted to authorize a pilot program as a senator in 1995.

Ratliff said he would advise education groups not to take Riddle's proposal "too seriously, because there's no way (lawmakers) can pay for it."

Carolyn Boyle of the Coalition for Public Schools, which opposes spending public funds to support private and religious schools, called the summary "radical, irresponsible and unaffordable" and a "good indication of how extreme some people are."

Riddle later replied: "It's outrageous and extreme to say parents don't have the right to have a choice regarding their children's education."

Riddle has been assisted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a "free market" think tank supported by school choice advocate James Leininger of San Antonio. She said she also appreciated Gov. Rick Perry's remarks last week.

"Every child is entitled to a public education, but public education is not entitled to every child," Perry told lawmakers. "Let's give children who need a second chance new choices that can forever change their future. Let's give them school choice."

Perry favors a pilot program enabling children in failing schools to attend private schools with state aid. He would consider Riddle's ideas if they clear the House and Senate, a spokeswoman said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, sees school choice as an option only "if other efforts fail," an aide said.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, supports vouchers, but said they aren't in the leadership proposal because they are "very controversial. There's a lot of pro and con. And our idea is to lay out a base bill that basically we hope the House will embrace."

Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, has filed a proposal for low-income children in the state's six largest school districts, including San Antonio's Northside School District, to attend private schools with a voucher.

Corte said Riddle's approach could pass the House, "but by the time we get to it, there will be a lot of demonizing and a lot of people will flake off and it may not pass. The education establishment wants to protect their monopoly."

"A pilot program would work," Corte said. "Once we show the value, we can have a broader program."
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