Tea Party, and religious-right and other anti-government fanatics launched full-scale attacks on public education, religious freedom and women’s health in the regular and special sessions of the Texas Legislature this year. Over the next week, TFN Insider will recap what happened on major TFN issues during the two sessions. Up today: private school vouchers.
Voucher advocates made two major efforts to pass an enormously expensive scheme to drain billions of dollars from Texas public schools — a last-minute amendment to a major budget bill in the regular session and a stand-alone bill, HB 33, in the special session. Both of those efforts to subsidize private and religious schools through so-called “taxpayer savings grants” failed in the face of solid opposition from TFN, our partners in the Coalition for Public Schools and other supporters of public education.
Opponents of diverting tax dollars from public schools to private and religious schools won a close but dramatic victory in the Texas House in 2005. Then legislative support for voucher schemes essentially collapsed, with the House voting overwhelmingly in 2007 and 2009 against spending any public dollars on private school vouchers.
The only voucher bill filed early in this year’s regular session — SB 157 by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands — went nowhere. Then in mid-May, as the House struggled to pass budget bills that already included billions of dollars in cuts to public education, voucher advocates revealed a new scheme: “taxpayer savings grants”. Such grants would take tax dollars from public schools and use them to pay tuition for students who instead attend private or religious schools. Even data provided by the scheme’s supporters showed that billions of dollars would disappear — on top of the other deep cuts legislators were planning — from public education funding in Texas.
This last-minute proposal had appeared in no bill during the session and, as a result, had not been vetted by any legislative committee. Its supporters clearly hoped to avoid such scrutiny by attaching the scheme as an amendment to a key budget bill in the rush to pass legislation at the end of the session.
TFN and our partners in the Coalition for Public Schools immediately mobilized public education supporters across the state, urging them to call their legislators. We also made sure that legislators — Democrats and Republicans — were aware of this irresponsible sneak attack on neighborhoods public schools and its enormous potential costs. Opposition was so strong that the scheme’s supporters didn’t even bother to ask the full House for a vote on their amendment.
Then, however, voucher advocates filed the same measure as HB 33 in the special legislative session that began May 31. But testimony on the the bill before the House Committee on Government Efficiency and Reform was devastating to the voucher lobby. In fact, committee members were stunned to learn the scheme would essentially require the state of Texas to spend (not counting local or federal funds) more for a student to attend a private school than a public school. The bill never made it out of committee.
While both attempts to pass a voucher scheme failed, the list of pressure groups supporting this breathtaking effort to defund public education was long. Among those opponents of public education: Texas Home School Coalition, James Leininger’s Texas Public Policy Foundation, Liberty Institute (the Texas affiliate of Focus on the Family), the fringe-right Houston Area Pastor Council, the anti-government Americans for Prosperity, and various Tea Party and Republican Party groups.
Make no mistake: the deep cuts lawmakers made to the education budget will severely handicap public schools across Texas. But passage of this reckless voucher scheme would have been truly catastrophic for public education and millions of the state’s schoolchildren.