Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Texas Lawmakers Face a Key Test on Vouchers

Texas lawmakers face a key test on vouchers

Tuesday, May 03, 2005 / Austin American-Statesman

As the 2005 session of the Texas Legislature moves toward its final weeks, lawmakers face a clear and critical choice. They can choose to build on 20 years of reforms and standards that have improved our public schools — or they can let politics and campaign contributions dictate reckless policies such as private school vouchers.

Sadly, too many of our state's leaders have already chosen to abandon their responsibility. House and Senate leaders have been pushing bills that would erode quality education standards and let the education commissioner privatize hundreds of public schools.

Last month, the House Public Education Committee also heard 11 hours of testimony on three proposed voucher bills. Over a two-year period, those voucher schemes could drain $600 million to $2.2 billion from public schools to pay for tuition at private and religious schools.

We have been here before. Opposition to vouchers is so strong that lawmakers have rejected voucher bills in every legislative session since 1995. A recent Texas Poll showed that Texans, by a margin of 55 percent to 39 percent, oppose subsidizing private schools with tax dollars that should be

used to pay for things such as textbooks and teacher salaries at public schools.

Why, then, do voucher supporters think this is finally their year to prevail? One big reason for their optimism is that Gov. Rick Perry and other key officials won elections with millions of dollars supplied by wealthy pro-voucher special interests. This is payback time.

Pro-voucher lobbyists claim that our education system needs their radical "reform." But Texans already know what reforms work, and vouchers aren't part of the mix.

About 20 years ago, Texas embarked on an ambitious program to improve its public schools. It placed limits on class size, strengthened accountability standards, encouraged early reading intervention and moved to equalize funding to make our schools better.

Parents liked the results. A bipartisan poll in January showed that nearly two-thirds of Texans have seen improvement in public schools and want the state to fully finance the reforms that have brought about those improvements.

Some legislators have proposed reinforcing those proven standards to help schools that are still struggling. One proposal, for example, is to lower class sizes even more in such schools. Another is to send SWAT teams of master teachers and administrators from successful schools into struggling schools.

These proposals would build on the successes we have already seen. Vouchers would not.

Voucher students at private schools in other states often do not perform as well as students in public schools. In some states, such as Florida, officials created voucher programs that did not even track the performance of private schools.

Worse, private school voucher programs often don't serve the very students whom the programs were designed to help: low-income, at-risk and special-education students at struggling public schools. A recent study showed that only about 75 of 1,300 voucher students in Washington, D.C., this year came from public schools designated as most in need of improvement. This happened even though the new federal voucher program was designed specifically for students at those struggling schools.

So who used the vouchers? About 200 of the new voucher recipients were already enrolled in private schools.

The truth is hard to escape: wealthy voucher interests are simply looking for a way to use tax dollars to subsidize private schools. But many students then get left behind in public schools that have even fewer resources. That's not just bad public policy. It's plain wrong.

It doesn't have to be this way. Texas legislators can still choose to stand with the vast majority of Texas parents and teachers who want strong public schools. Or they can bow to the demands of wealthy campaign contributors who want vouchers. They can't do both.

Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that monitors public education, religious freedom and individual liberties.

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