Wednesday, May 28, 2008

TEA's dropout plan under fire

Hmmm. This is worth paying attention to. -Angela

May 27, 2008, 10:45PM
TEA's dropout plan under fire
State officials deny critics' claims that the grants are a voucher program
San Antonio Express-News

AUSTIN — The Texas Education Agency is opening the back door to school vouchers with a plan to use state money to help both public and private groups educate dropouts, critics charged Tuesday.

Texas lawmakers set aside about $50 million last year for a more aggressive response to school dropouts, which experts say has reached the crisis level in Texas. An estimated one-third of high school freshmen in Texas do not graduate.

The resulting High School Completion and Success Initiative Council advocates multiple approaches to address the dropout problem, including "alternative delivery systems," which some believe is code for school vouchers.

Universities, school districts and private organizations could compete for funds to return dropouts to school.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott chairs the council.

Critics complain it is an effort to create the state's first publicly funded private school voucher program.

Vouchers allow parents to send children to private and religious schools with tax money paying at least a portion of the tuition. Attempts to pass such a program have failed repeatedly in the Texas Legislature.

Scott denied the voucher claim.

"The Dropout Recovery Pilot Program is not a voucher program. It is an effort to bring dropouts back into the schoolhouse," Scott said. "It uses state grant funds. It does not divert a penny of Foundation School Fund money from school districts. In fact, school districts are eligible to apply for this grant, as are universities, charter schools, county departments of education, regional education service centers and nonprofit organizations."

'Loose rules' under fire

The Legislature has repeatedly made it clear that tax dollars should be used to fund public schools, not private schools, said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for public education, religious freedom and individual liberties.

"Even worse, this program's loose rules would make it relatively easy for parents to simply withdraw their children from public schools and have them identified as 'dropouts' so that the state pays for their private school tuition," Miller said. "That was clearly not the intent of lawmakers last year who sought innovative ways to help public schools reduce dropouts."

The Texas State Teachers Association also opposes the idea.

Earlier this spring, Scott indicated that using tax dollars to send dropouts to private schools would be appropriate as "some kind of second chance."

Scott also noted the plan would not give money for parents "to shop around" like under a traditional voucher program.

"I respectfully disagree with the positions taken by the Texas State Teachers Association and the Texas Freedom Network," Scott said. "I had hoped they would join me in making every effort to bring dropouts back to school."

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