Texas school choice bill filed by Senate leadership

After last week's Capitol rally hosted by school choice proponents, many state experts have questioned what the proposed education policy could look like in Texas.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, answered many of those questions during a press conference Monday before filing Senate Bill 3.

The proposed school choice program, if used to its maximum benefit, would provide choice for roughly 15,000 students—of the state's 5.2 million—in the first year of its implementation, Patrick said.

"That is one ... quarter of 1 percent," Patrick said. "So when people say the sky is falling and that we are undermining education, no we are not. We are providing choice for parents who are not wealthy enough to choose a school for their child."

Education savings accounts

The bill takes aim at failing schools via education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships. An educations savings account allows the state to take the average amount spent on a student and place that money into an account for students who attend a failing school. Individual students can use the funds to find alternative options for education.

Savings accounts have been criticized because they directly take away funds that would have otherwise been directed toward public schools.

In Patrick and Taylor's bill, children would be eligible for education savings accounts if they are born on or after Sept. 1, 2012, and attended a public school for the entire preceding year. Parents of children in the program must agree to spend funds only for designated expenses and notify the comptroller of any status changes in the child's education.

Funds from the program can only be used for tuition and fees at a private school accredited by the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission, at a postsecondary educational institution, for online educational courses, for the purchase of textbooks or other instructional materials, the purchase of curriculum, fees for private tutors, fees for educational therapies for children with disabilities, and costs on computers—to amount to no more than 10 percent of the amount paid to the participant's account.

The bill specifies the money can not be used for office supplies, food, and before and after school care.

The bill also stipulates each of the accounts may be randomly audited to ensure the funds are being used appropriately.

In July, outgoing State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff said this kind of policy is really an entitlement program that could cost the state upwards of $3 billion per year.

"This idea takes the word entitlement to a whole new level for Texas," Ratliff said. "It is nothing more than a huge transfer of wealth with no way to control the price tag."

Other states, including Nevada and Arizona, already offer this version of school choice.

Tax credit scholarships

A tax credit scholarship is funded by donations from businesses and distributed by nonprofit organizations through grants. Businesses that participate receive tax credits for their donations.

Taylor and Patrick's version of the bill would administer these scholarships through an education assistance organization overseen by the comptroller's office. The amount in scholarships would be capped at $100 million in its first year.

Taylor said students taking advantage of tax credit scholarships would only be eligible if they were in the foster care system, institutional care system, have an active-duty parent or earn a household income not greater than 200 percent of income needed to qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a member of the Senate Education Committee, has previously introduced legislation to implement tax credit scholarships.

"It is a way to bring new money into the system," Bettencourt said. "I think it would be very popular. If you can donate money to a nonprofit and get money back for it, who wouldn't?"

At the end of the press conference, Patrick pleaded with the House to give the bill a vote should it make it to the other chamber.

"I am asking the House to give this bill and those parents a fair shot," Patrick said. "Because whether it is the Senate or it is the House, if we block a bill like this, from even being heard or from getting a vote, then we are blocking that child's future, that child's chance at the American dream."

Taylor echoed Patrick's request, asking his House colleagues to look at the facts and realize that money does not necessarily leave the education system. If a student leaves a public school, he said all of his or her funding is eliminated. With this system, some of the money remains, Patrick said.

The full text of the bill can be viewed here. Look here for past coverage on different types of school choice.