Don’t be distracted from state issues

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, January 28, 2017

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With all the fireworks going on around the new presidential administration in Washington, we might be a bit distracted from the actions of our legislators in Austin.

That would be a mistake.

Many issues are on the agenda for this session, including some that are critical (passing a balanced budget, improving the state’s foster care and CPS, improving mental health treatment) and some that appear to be more about scoring political points than solving actual problems (the transgender bathroom bill, constitutional carry of firearms).

But perhaps the most intriguing issue will be what our legislators decide to do with school choice.

According to the Texas Tribune, Senate Bill 3 was filed by Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor Monday. It would establish the creation of voucher-like programs parents of students in public schools could use to subsidize the cost of private school tuition.

The issue is certainly a serious one because it deals with both the quality of public education and school funding.

And it’s not a simple issue, either.

On one hand, it seems to make sense that if your student is in a “failing” public school, parents should have the option to move their children to a school where they feel their child could get the best education, including private or religious schools.

On the other hand, it raises serious issues about diverting taxpayer money from public schools to private or religious schools with no accountability mechanism in place.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has made the school choice issue one of his top priorities during his entire decade in elected office, first as a senator, then as the chair of the Committee on Education and now as lieutenant governor. He’s also been one of the most vocal critics of public schools in Texas.

His critics, including many in public education, have complained that he has actively worked against public schools in order to get his favorite issue passed. They complain that the current “A-F” school accountability ratings and the convoluted scoring system that seems to give many quality schools low grades is simply a way for Patrick to point to “evidence” of how widespread the problem of low performing schools is across the state.

The issue has been brought up in past legislative sessions, but a bill has not made it all the way to the governor’s desk.

That could change this session, if House Speaker Joe Straus allows a vote on the issue.

Governor Gregg Abbott has already signaled his willingness to sign the bill into law.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has also publicly supported school choice in his home state.

And President Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has also been a strong supporter of school choice.

All of that seems to point to school choice having its best chance to make it into state law this year.

It’s certainly something to pay attention to, if we’re not too distracted.

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

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