Tuesday, May 24, 2005

School voucher bill fails in raucous debate

Posted on Tue, May. 24, 2005

By R.A. Dyer
Star-Telegram Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - A measure that would have allowed parents to obtain taxpayer-supported vouchers to send their children to private schools was shot down late Monday night by a bitterly divided Texas House of Representatives.

The voucher measure, part of a bill to reauthorize the Texas Education Agency, survived several challenges by House opponents who said it would harm public schools.

Each challenge failed by just two or three votes, and on one vote, House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, cast a tie-breaker.

But state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, tacked on an amendment that effectively gutted the voucher provisions. Craddick then upheld a technical objection to the bill, killing it outright.

State Rep. Kent Grusendorf, the Arlington Republican who sponsored the voucher bill, said it would have given parents more choices in their children's education. But he appeared to concede defeat after Craddick upheld the technical objection.

"We debated a very important issue tonight. I want to thank you," he told members.

The debate was among the most contentious so far in the House this session, with members shouting over one another, clapping, chanting and whistling.

At one point, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, ran across the House floor and grabbed the microphone from Grusendorf.

Vouchers also divided the Republicans and split the Tarrant County delegation.

During an exchange over Geren's amendment to gut Grusendorf's bill, Grusendorf bellowed, "Are you going to let me answer? Are you going to let me answer?"

During another exchange, Geren said to state Rep. Jim Jackson, R- Carrollton, "Are you going to ask me a question, or are you going to pontificate?"

Chances are slim that the voucher provision might return before the legislative session ends Monday. Key Senate lawmakers also oppose the measure.

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, raised the technical objection that spelled doom for vouchers. He noted that an official description of the bill did not comply with changes made in a House committee.

Geren's successful amendment, which gutted the bill, stated that the "school choice" provisions would apply only to parents who want to move students from one public school to another but would bar the use of taxpayer-supported vouchers to send children to private schools.

That provision was adopted 74-70.

Area lawmakers who supported Geren were Reps. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth; Toby Goodman, R-Arlington; Bob Griggs, R-North Richland Hills; and Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.

Lawmakers who supported Grusendorf in opposing Geren's amendment were Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford; Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth; Todd Smith, R-Euless; Vicki Truitt, R-Keller; and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.

Geren also successfully attached an amendment to the legislation that took his home school district, Fort Worth, out of the bill and replaced it with Grusendorf's home district in Arlington. That amendment also removed the Dallas district from the bill, and replaced it with the district of another key voucher supporter, Rep. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving.

As originally written, the measure would have allowed up to 5 percent of students in the state's largest districts, including Fort Worth, to get vouchers. It applied mostly to children at risk of failing and to low-income students, although opponents said that incoming students at any income level could get vouchers.

The legislation also would have allowed up to 5 percent of students in the Edgewood, North Forest and South San Antonio school districts to get vouchers.

That could amount to more than 550,000 children, according to an analysis provided by opponents of the legislation. But supporters said there are only 19,000 places in private schools.
© 2005 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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