Thursday, May 19, 2005

Vouchers Get Second Chance

Proposal added to TEA bill; home-school plan also resurrected

07:59 AM CDT on Thursday, May 19, 2005

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Contested legislation that would allow low-income and at-risk students in Dallas and other urban school districts to transfer to private schools at state expense was added by a House committee Wednesday to an unrelated bill reauthorizing the Texas Education Agency.

The private school voucher proposal was approved as part of the TEA measure by the House Public Education Committee, which passed a nearly identical voucher bill this month that died before it was considered by the full House.

The proposal would enable thousands of students in Dallas, Fort Worth and at least five other urban districts to attend private schools as long as those schools meet certain standards, such as annual testing of students.

Committee members also resurrected another measure that was presumed dead – legislation that would allow about 2,000 home-school students to take some classes and participate in extracurricular activities at regular public schools.

That proposal by Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, was substituted for an unrelated Senate bill that governed payment of tuition to school districts by nonresident students. As now written, the Senate bill would allow home-school students to enroll in a public school for one or more classes – such as chemistry or a foreign language – and would increase funding for districts based on how many of the students they educate.

Both bills face a Tuesday deadline for passage by the House.

Approval of the voucher plan drew sharp criticism from voucher opponents, while groups supporting vouchers applauded the panel for letting the legislation go forward.

"School choice opens the door to a brighter future for many children," said Texas Public Policy Foundation President Brooke Rollins. "Chairman [Kent] Grusendorf and his colleagues on the House Education Committee should be praised for bucking the special interests that have for too long held back the needs of Texans." The foundation is a conservative think tank based in Austin.

The Texas Freedom Network, which battles with conservative groups over education issues, said the voucher plan is a "reckless" scheme that could jeopardize the existence of the state agency that oversees public schools in Texas.

"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 of the freedom network, referring to campaign contributions from key GOP donors who support vouchers.

Those concerns may prove to be unfounded as the Senate author of the TEA bill promised Senate Democrats that he would kill the measure if the House used it as a vehicle to launch a voucher program. The promise was made shortly before the Senate approved the "sunset" legislation, which reauthorizes the agency.

Opponents – including virtually every public education group in the state – said the voucher plan would deal a huge blow to public schools, depriving them of millions of dollars at a time when many districts are cutting programs and employees to make ends meet.

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, author of the voucher language, has pointed out that students she is targeting are those in greatest need of help because they are poor, at risk of dropping out, in special education or are victims of school violence.

Further she said, her legislation limits the number of students who would be eligible for vouchers to 5 percent of each district's enrollment. That figure represents about 30,000 students statewide.

A Legislative Budget Board fiscal note on the bill indicated that if 15,000 students take advantage of the voucher option, the seven school districts would lose nearly $70 million a year in funding.

The home-school legislation could prove significant in future years, considering that at least 160,000 children in Texas are taught at home.

Mr. McCall said he was asked to sponsor the legislation by the Plano school district, where a significant number of home-school children reside.


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