This was the best late-night t.v. that was on last night. The passions ran high. See my other post on this from Carolyn Boyle who provides her own description of what happened last night. -Angela
May 24, 2005, 12:46PM
Dramatic night at the statehouse ends the quest for this session
By JANET ELLIOTT and JEFFREY GILBERT
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - A plan to make Texas one of the first states with a large-scale voucher program died Monday night after a raucous debate and a series of close votes in the House.
After the bill was gutted to make vouchers available only for public and not private schools, Speaker Tom Craddick sustained a parliamentary challenge that killed the issue for this session.
"I woke up this morning thinking this may be the day we made history in Texas," said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, sponsor of the proposal. "I'm disappointed."
It was the first time in eight years that the House debated the volatile issue of giving students public funding to attend private and parochial schools. In 1997, the effort failed on a tie vote and Monday's debate delivered similar drama.
Members on both sides of the issue shouted and clapped during the hours-long debate.
"I'm very happy because the people won in this state rather than big money," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.
The voucher proposal was attached to a Senate bill reauthorizing the Texas Education Agency. The author of the bill, Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, had promised Senate Democrats that he would not agree to a TEA sunset bill containing a voucher proposal.
The education agency will now be attached to a safety-net bill that will continue its functions until the next legislative session in 2007.
HISD, North Forest affected
The language debated by the House would have allowed as many as 30,000 students in the Houston, North Forest and five other urban, high-poverty districts to qualify for vouchers .
"We have to do something to throw a lifeline to help those kids trapped in large urban inner city schools," said Grusendorf, R-Arlington.
He said where vouchers have been tried in other states, the public schools that lost students "actually responded to the competitive pressure" and have improved. "They tried to keep other children from leaving," Grusendorf said.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, was one of several members who tried to strip the pilot program from the bill.
"This is a proposal that would drain millions of dollars from public school budgets at a time we can't seem to come up with money for textbooks we've already promised to the kids," said Hochberg.
Hochberg's amendment was tabled 72-71, with Craddick casting the deciding vote after an initial vote yielded a tie. Houston Democrats Kevin Bailey and Harold Dutton were not present for the vote.
After the vote, Dutton was officially excused. Bailey's office said he had to return to Houston for personal reasons.
A second vote on another amendment to strip the provision failed on a 72-72 tie with Craddick voting to table the amendment.
After that, however, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, succeeded with two amendments that proved lethal. One stripped out the Dallas and Fort Worth districts, and the other removed private and parochial schools.
The chamber was buzzing Monday with word that Craddick and longtime Republican backer James Leininger were pressuring undecided lawmakers in a back office.
Leininger, a San Antonio businessman, has used part of his fortune to set up a voucher program there.
One lawmaker said at least 12 Republicans had been called into a meeting. Craddick's office would neither confirm nor deny the widespread reports about Leininger's presence.
"There's only one reason this issue is before us at a time when most members would prefer to vote against it, and that is because a major contributor has been sitting in the back hall working members for a week," said Hochberg.
Who would have qualified
Under the bill, students would have qualified by being at risk of dropping out or victims of school violence. The program also would have been open to students in special education or limited English proficiency programs, and those from households whose income does not exceed 200 percent of the qualifying income for free and reduced price lunches.
The vouchers would have been for 90 percent of the statewide average public funding per student.
The Austin-based Coalition for Public Schools, which opposes vouchers, said the Houston Independent School District could have lost $200 million and North Forest $9 million in the next two years. However, a Legislative Budget Board report estimated the school districts affected by the program would have lost a total of about $69 million per year.