Thursday, May 19, 2005

School Voucher Proposal Revived


At-risk students would benefit from plan, though it faces long odds on approval.
By Jason Embry
Thursday, May 19, 2005

Efforts to send at-risk students in Austin and other urban areas to private schools with public money were revived at the Capitol on Wednesday, but the proposal still faces long odds as the legislative session winds down.

Conservative lawmakers and advocates have long tried to create a voucher program in Texas but have met steady resistance from school and parent groups, Democrats and rural legislators.

"We really have a problem in our urban schools," said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee. "We need to provide these children another opportunity to succeed."

Grusendorf's committee tacked a pilot voucher program onto Senate Bill 422, which allows the Texas Education Agency to stay open. But the lawmaker who is carrying that measure in the Senate has assured voucher opponents that he will not accept the change.

Despite those hurdles, the vote by the education committee illustrated the determination of key House member to push vouchers.

The pilot program would allow students in the state's largest school districts to transfer to another public school or attend a private school and use public money to pay at least some of the cost.

Students qualifying for the program would include dropouts, special-education students, students who speak limited English or those who are victims of assault at the hands of another student. Also qualifying would be students whom the state considers to be at risk of dropping out or who come from families with incomes that are no more than twice the amount that would qualify them for reduced-price meals at schools.

No more than 5 percent of a district's students could get a voucher.

A similar measure that would have affected an estimated 15,000 to 19,000 students was approved by the House education committee but was not considered by the full House before a legislative deadline stopped it last week.

A preliminary Legislative Budget Board analysis of that plan said it would save the state about $2 million the first year but that it would cost the state almost $9 million a year by 2009.

It warns that the cost could be much higher if students who attend private school briefly enroll in public school in order to receive a voucher, then go back to private school.

The analysis said the bill would cost the state after the first couple of years because an increasing number of students who otherwise would pay to attend private school would use the vouchers.

It also said local districts would lose $69 million a year because their funding is based on enrollment, and as enrollment shrinks, so does funding. The state would continue spending most ofthat money but would send it to private schools.

"The committee chose today to hold all Texas schoolchildren and the TEA hostage to the wishes of wealthy political donors who want taxpayers to subsidize tuition at private and religious schools," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors social conservatism in government.

Even if the Senate bill stalls because of vouchers or other provisions, lawmakers are expected to find other legislation to keep the education agency operating.; 445-3654

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