AUSTIN, March 3 - There is waning interest by Texas legislators to consider the faux-voucher proposal that has been advocated for months by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
In fact, with no bill yet filed, and with a March 8 deadline looming for introducing legislation, if it is to be considered before the Legislature adjourns on May 27, the voucher proposal is clearly on “life support,” at best.
Even before the Legislature officially convened, Governor Dewhurst and Senator Patrick visited students at a Catholic school near the State Capitol to advocate legislation that would provide corporate tax breaks to Texas businesses, if the revenue was “contributed” to a non-profit group that would award private school “scholarships.”
Tax policy experts immediately found the concept worrisome, because tax credits would be awarded for private school scholarships, but not for other purposes.
Former Chief Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton—there is no more highly-respected tax policy expert in the country—recently wrote, “Tuition tax credits aren’t about tax policy or about investment in schools; they’re about getting a voucher program on the books that can be expanded over time. That’s why critics have called the tax credits ‘back-door vouchers’ and ‘neo-vouchers.’ Either way, they’re the wrong answer.”
Among Mr. Hamilton’s clients is Raise Your Hand Texas, the education advocacy and anti-voucher organization that is funded, largely, by contributions from some of the state’s most-influential business leaders.
Former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, appointed to the post by Governor Rick Perry, says that he is worried about how the tax revenue would be managed, and how the scholarships would be awarded.
Speaking at a conference sponsored by Texas Tribune at Rice University, Mr. Scott said, “Whether it’s public funds or it’s siphoned off tax dollars that go into a 501 (c) 3 and they get to hand out the money, the potential for fraud is incredible. Those checks are going to go out and they’re going to find out that those kids don’t actually exist, as we have with charter schools in the past.”
For his part, Senator Patrick says he wants Texas to follow Louisiana’s lead on expanding charter schools and providing vouchers, or tax credits, for private schools. “This is the civil rights issue of our time,” Senator Patrick often says.
That argument obviously doesn’t sell with many local school officials. As Tami Keeling, President of the Victoria School Board, recently told her hometown newspaper, "Where is the choice and for whom? We already have choice in the public school system."
Most-importantly, Senator Patrick’s approach does not appear to sell with many legislators. Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, believes there are enough votes in the Senate to block a faux-voucher bill from reaching the floor for debate.
Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, have both said that it will be very difficult for any school voucher bill to pass the Texas House this session. Said Straus, just days ago, “I’m pretty certain the votes are not there.”
Pro-voucher advocate Bill Hammond, President of the Teas Association of Business, concedes that the tax-credit-for-scholarship proposal faces stiff—if not insurmountable—opposition this session—but voucher advocates certainly aren’t going to “pull the plug.”
Says Hammond, “It might be a two-session deal.”
Andy Welch retired in June 2011 as Communication Director for the Austin Independent School District. This commentary is adapted from an EduLege column that he wrote for the Texas School Public Relations Association.