04/06/2005 12:00 AM CDT
Express-News Staff Writer
AUSTIN — More than 500 parents, many from San Antonio, traveled Tuesday to the Capitol to rally in support of school choice and to testify before lawmakers who are considering three bills that could make Texas a model for taxpayer-funded private education.
"We need options," said Debra Cortines, who lives in the Edgewood School district. "Parents want a choice when it comes to their children's education."
Two of the bills being debated in the House Education Committee target San Antonio school districts specifically, including San Antonio, South San Antonio, Edgewood and Northside. The third bill would make every public school student in the state eligible for a voucher that could be used for private-school tuition.
Voucher supporters gathered at noon on the steps of the Capitol, waving Texas and American flags and shouting school choice slogans in English and Spanish.
"You're here today to make sure your voices are heard. And I'm telling you there are people listening to you at the highest level of state government," Gov. Rick Perry told the crowd. "When you give parents a choice, you give children a chance." Perry discounted the argument by critics that vouchers pull money from public schools and do nothing to help children left behind, pointing to Edgewood as an example.
Students there have been eligible for privately funded vouchers since 1998.
Just before the rally, representatives from civil rights organizations including the NAACP and LULAC held a news conference to urge lawmakers to end their "assault" on public schools.
The civil rights groups contend that while urban public schools are chronically under- funded, organizations like the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, funded partially with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, are attempting to persuade minority communities that diverting money from schools in the name of choice will benefit them.
"They are portraying this as an opportunity for middle-income and poor kids to have a stipend that will allow them to attend rich kids' schools, but it isn't that," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP. "It is true that parents, whatever their socioeconomic level, want their children to have the best education possible, but these proposals are fool's gold." House Public Education Committee members heard five hours of testimony from voucher supporters, while scores of opponents waited in frustration for their turn.
"We were told to expect to be here until midnight," said Dinah Miller, a parent from Dallas who had to leave at 6:30 p.m. after traveling to Austin to voice her opposition of vouchers. "The deck was stacked against us." Miller said she wanted to tell lawmakers that vouchers would drain much-needed resources from public schools.
"I wish they would focus on excellence in public education," Miller said. "Schools need more money, and we thought that's what they were getting this session.
"The kids that public schools are serving are just getting more and more needy, and they need more resources."
House Bill 12, sponsored by Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, would allow economically disadvantaged students from the state's six largest school districts, including Northside, to use a taxpayer-funded voucher to go to a private school.
"Where you live should not make you captive in a failing environment," Corte said.
He said vouchers would force competition between public and private schools, and that competition will benefit students in both settings.
"I support school choice, because I'm a huge believer in the free market system," he said.
House Bill 1263 would allow students with special needs or circumstances from districts in the state's five largest counties to apply for a voucher. The districts, which include San Antonio, South San Antonio and Edgewood, must serve a majority of economically disadvantaged students.
Kathy Miller, president of Texas Freedom Network, said the voucher bills would drain between $600 million and $1.1 billion from public schools.
"If you support public education in Texas, you can not support vouchers," Miller said.
Express-News staff writer Guillermo X. Garcia contributed to this report.