Monday, May 02, 2005

Education Personal for Some Politicos

Peggy Fikac
Chief, Express-News Austin bureau

AUSTIN — As lawmakers battle over education issues ranging from public school finance to tax-funded private school tuition, some have a very personal stake in the fight — their own children.

A survey of the 181 state lawmakers by the San Antonio Express-News found that nearly a third have children in kindergarten through the 12th grade. Only one lawmaker didn't answer the survey.

Of the 59 with school-age children, 35 chose public schools and 16 picked private schools — including some of the strongest opponents of tax-financed vouchers for private-school tuition.

"My children started the day every day praying to the Virgin Mary. We wanted them to," said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who has six children, including two school-age youths who attend a Catholic high school. "That's not appropriate for public dollars."

Some who send their children to private schools disagree, saying other parents should be empowered to make that choice through vouchers.

Seven lawmakers have children in both public and private schools, while one said he uses a combination of private, public and home schooling.

"Home-schooling has never been my legislative agenda. It's just my life," said Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, four of whose seven children are school age. "I do, however, believe that every family should have that right to do what's best for their family."

The 27 percent of lawmakers with children solely in private schools represents a bigger chunk than the general private-school population.

According to the latest figures available from the National Center for Education Statistics, when looking at students who attend public and private schools, 5.5 percent in Texas and 10.1 percent nationally were privately educated in 2001-2002.

Also, the Texas Home School Coalition estimates 250,000 to 300,000 Texas children are home-schooled, said its president, Tim Lambert.

Lawmakers say they make policy decisions for the good of the state regardless of their personal circumstances, although some add that their views are shaped by their experiences.

Those who pick private schools give reasons ranging from the desire for a religious education to a youngsters' individual needs.

But they say that in policy decisions, their personal choice doesn't detract from their attention to the public schools that educate most children.

"You could say, 'Well, he's paying to have his kids in private school. He doesn't care about the public schools.' That's not true," said Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, whose 5-year-old attends a religious school.

"You could also say, maybe he's going to work like the dickens to get the public schools even better and save himself a bundle of money," he said.

Among other points, Janek said the private-school experience makes him attuned to the value of smaller classes.

Some who send their children to public school say they feel the effects of policy decisions every day.

"I have daily experience with my kids coming home from public school," said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco.

"I see everything from my boy saying his book's old and tearing apart to the fact that they're doing TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) worksheets more often than I like," he said. "It's not just money. It's what's going on in the school."

Some lawmakers cite their ability to make a choice about schools in touting their desire to give other parents the financial means to choose.

"I support empowering parents," said Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, sponsor of a bill to create a pilot voucher program for economically disadvantaged youngsters. "Under the current situation, the only folks who get to enjoy that empowerment are people who have the resources."

Corte's children attend a First Baptist school, and he, like others making a similar choice, said he considers the religious environment important.

"We want them to attend a school where they can study the Bible and be able to pray," he said, stressing that he also supports public education.

Among voucher opponents' concerns is that such a program would hurt students by draining needed money from public schools, while voucher supporters say competition would improve schools.

For Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, the voucher issue is clear-cut and separate from his personal decision to send his children to Catholic school.

"I'm going to vote how I think my district is best-served," Puente he said. "And I think my district is best-served by voting against vouchers."

Somewhere in the middle is Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. He has one child in public school, one in private school and an open mind on vouchers. He said he'd need to see bill details before deciding how he'd vote.

As for his personal experiences bearing on policy decisions, Straus said, "I really do see both sides.

"To represent my district, I think I need to be especially attuned to the public school system. But I understand the benefits of a private school education," he said. "Every child is different. It's that way in my house."

Several lawmakers with children in public or private schools have moved them between the two in the past — or plan to do so in the future — based on their needs.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, has a daughter in kindergarten at a church school where her sister-in-law is superintendent, and a toddler son right behind.

"With the demands of my job, I feel so secure being able to drop her off where there is a family member," she said.

But the school only goes through second grade, so both children will move later to public school, she said, adding that she's fortunate because the children have an aunt who is a public school teacher.

"I want my children to go to public school. I believe public school is in many ways the great melting pot of many, many facets of life," she said. "I think as (my children) progress, Mama will progress with them on thinking how good we're doing on policies."


1 comment:

  1. In discussing the educational preferences of Texas’ congressional parents, Peggy Fikac’s article touches on one of the more crucial questions in politics; that is, how close must leaders be to the realms over which they rule to maintain legitimacy? A better way of phrasing that question may be: how deeply should a politician feel the effects of his or her decisions to be able to make such decisions? There certainly is no right answer to this question; however, its relevance can be felt in most forms of legislation from gay and lesbian rights to immigration policy on to the topic of Fikac’s article, educational policy.
    Fikac, in fact, directly poses the above question in problematizing what it means for legislators, who oversee the functioning of public schools, to be sending their children to private educational facilities. Despite being a scenario which from one perspective could be seen as tending towards hypocrisy, the article brings up several counter viewpoints worth considering.
    First, it is proposed that when a congressperson has their child enrolled in a private school, they feel even more pressure to improve public schools presumably because they are motivated to reenroll their child into public schools to save money. This is a challenging perspective because it suggests that these policymakers are indeed connected to their policies through the potential relief for their checkbooks. While it is tempting to give credit to this viewpoint, the problem I see is that most parents are also extremely motivated to sacrifice great amounts of resources for the advancement of their own child. This does not assume that all Texas legislators are swimming in sacrificeable cash but I do think that most have at least enough money to set some aside to put their kids through a full length (K-12) private schooling even at the expense of public school students.
    A second perspective worth considering which Fikac mentions in her article is that some parents in the Texas legislature prefer for their children to have a religious education but also feel that to push for such an education in the public educational system would be unacceptable. Although the respect for the separation of church and state exhibited by these legislators must be appreciated, the deeper implications of their perspective must be considered as well. One should ask what it means that some viewpoints essentially cannot be tolerated in a public sphere? From there, one must ask how we are to attempt the continual integration of diverse perspectives in a world increasingly characterized by the close proximity of all peoples? To this end, it must be questioned if parents who remove their children from the public educational system because of their beliefs are actually decreasing the potential of education to serve its original purpose of the unification of all peoples in America. While the first incarnations of this purpose may have been founded more on a goal of homogenized unification/indoctrination, it seems another equally potential goal today could be the unification based on acceptance of diversity. Accordingly, this addresses the sentiment of another legislator cited in Fikac’s article who justified placing one child in public schools and another in private school by claiming that “every child is different.” That statement is true enough; however, it need not be true that the public schooling system cannot handle such variety. Despite modern attacks on the very future existence of public schools by some legislators, educators should resist by actively seeking to transform public schools into dynamic, open arenas where students of all backgrounds may converge and all benefit to the same degree. Considering current funding shortcomings this may be a proverbial pipe dream; yet, let us not lose hold of the vision that public schools should be able to offer at least as much as private schools to America’s youth. To realize this vision would be to prevent the splintering of youth into “interest segments” as well as prevent legislators from being in the position of making law in an areas where they feel little of the repercussions.