AUSTIN, February 27 - State Sen. Eddie Lucio says his legislation to help raise the academic standards of disadvantaged students in poor performing public schools should not be viewed as a voucher system.
The Brownsville Democrat will soon unveil two pieces of legislation. One of the bills would allow higher education institutions to take over the running of high schools that are not doing a good job. He says Texas A&M University is showing interest in this proposal.
The other bill would allow academically under-achieving students to leave their public school and received an education in a private school. A combination of taxpayer and private funding would help pay for their education but Lucio is keen to stress that the state funds would not come from the public education budget.
“The question is whether we are going to make a difference for those in need and those who are falling through the cracks. That is what my bills are really all about. It is not about taking away from public education funding. It is not about vouchers. It is more about helping a category of students who have fallen on hard times, who are disadvantaged economically and who need our help to make it through the system,” Lucio said.
“I certainly respect our teacher groups, our educational programs but we need to do something to make sure that those who are most at risk and those that need our help the most are helped.”
Lucio said his transfer of students plan would likely involve setting up a non-profit, funded by state dollars and the private sector. Private investors would get a tax credit. He believes the state should commit somewhere in the region of $50 million to $100 million per biennium for the project. He said he expects to help anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 students. The proposal could be viewed as a pilot project, Lucio said, which could be scaled up in later years if it proves successful.
“When you look at the number of students in our state, four million-plus, 10,000, 20,000 even 50,000 students is not a big number. It is one percent maybe. If kids are staying in school and are learning and being able to get the education they need and deserve then I would not mind taking it to a higher level,” Lucio said.
“But, I do not foresee it happening right away. We need to make sure it works. We need to make sure we have the resources in the future to enhance it but not to take away from public education.”
Lucio has not yet filed his education bills. He said he and his staff are fine tuning the legislation to ensure it gives credit to those who want to contribute to the project. He reiterated that the legislation would not take money from public education.
“It’s more of a tax credit bill where businesses are going to be able to have a chance to contribute to a very worthy cause of helping a group of students who will be classified as poor and needy and at risk. I feel very strongly that we should help everyone regardless of how we approach the issue,” Lucio said.
“In this case I think we need to look for some money in the budget that is not earmarked for public education. I do not want for the education community to feel that we are taking away from them. There are ways of doing that. There are areas of the budget that we can look for some money in and do a small amount so that we can see it work.”
Lucio also reiterated that the legislation is not about school vouchers.
“This will not be considered a voucher system. It will be set up in such a way that we do not use public education money. I do not want to see us being divided on this issue. It is just like feeding needy children, we do not really care where the money comes from. We just need to feed our children. It is the same thing with education. If we are going to help children out of poverty then we need to educate them. If they fall through the cracks then we need to reach down and grab them and pull them out and put them into a system that will work for them,” Lucio said.
Lucio said private schools in Texas generally do a very good job.
“They have good discipline. They have public school teachers that are teaching there. The quality of teachers is the same as our public school system. It could be the setting. It could be other factors where students for some reason are teachable. I do not know and I do not want to be critical. If we have low-performing schools and if children are not making it through a certain school district then we need to make sure they do.”
With regard to tackling low-performing schools, Lucio said he would like to see higher education institutions come in and run them. He said Texas A&M University has shown some interest.
“I am also making an effort to bring a university, either A&M or UT or some other university that would want to come in and take over low-performing schools. We have to address public education. We need to help the kids who are in the public education system. Whether it is allowing them to go to a private school setting or bringing in an institution of higher learning to take over the operation of that school,” Lucio said.
“Higher education institutions could bring in their professors, top-level people, and do whatever it takes to set up a curriculum that would bring those students from low grades to passing grades. I know that at least A&M is extremely interested in doing this. I feel good about them wanting to be a part of the success of our children in the public school system.”
Lucio said the legislation could be viewed as a “recovery-type” bill. “It will allow the university to recover a school that is very low performing and not meeting the needs of our public education children. Bring in their experts, their professors, bring everybody in and set it up and get those children up to the level they need to be in order to pass their test,” Lucio said.
Lucio said he is not sure at this stage if his two bills will stand alone or whether they will be merged into an omnibus education bill that state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, will be carrying. Patrick is chair of the Senate Committee on Education and a supporter of school vouchers.
“The bottom line is we need to help our children, to make sure nobody fails, that everybody passes. We have to do our best for these children. A lot of them go to school without a hug in the morning, with a hungry belly. We need to feed them and make sure they learn.”