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."