Say What? Texas Lawmakers Go to a Private School to Talk about Public Education Reform

by Dan Quinn

Perhaps the irony escaped them. Today Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, held a press conference at a Catholic elementary school in Austin to talk about reforming public education.

Now think about that a minute. Two of the most important elected leaders on education in the Texas Senate — which along with the state House of Representatives is tasked by the state Constitution “to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools” — brought reporters to a private school to talk about public education reform.

That, of course, begs the question: just where do their priorities lie? And what schools are they trying to help?

Two years ago Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Patrick helped lead efforts to cut more than $5 billion in funding for Texas public schools. Thousands of teachers lost their jobs. Courses were dropped, and classrooms got more crowded. Schools couldn’t buy textbooks and other instructional materials. And today these two elected officials went to a private school not to talk about restoring some of those draconian budget cuts. No, they went there to talk about the need for school reform — or what Sen. Patrick called “a revolution.”

What would that “revolution” entail? That’s where the private school venue — St. Mary’s Catholic School in Austin — comes in. Patrick has been saying for months now that he will press for passage of a voucher scheme that would shift tax dollars from public to private schools. Today he proposed one way to do that — tax credits for businesses that fund scholarships to private schools. Sen. Patrick said such a scheme wouldn’t take public money from public schools. Really? Then what would legislators cut so they could fund the tax credits corporations would get for their scholarship donations?

Eight states had similar tax credit schemes as of last spring. As the New York Times showed last May, they’re a racket. Supporters say the scholarships funded through these tax credit schemes give low-income families “choices” for where to send their children to school. Except they don’t really. In Georgia, for example, a report from an independent organization found evidence suggesting that the vast majority of students receiving those scholarships already attended private schools. The New York Times showed how one private school contrived with donors to use donations to benefit the children of the donors themselves — all legal under the state’s tax credit bill. Very little of that school’s donations actually went to scholarships for low-income students in public schools. In Pennsylvania, the Times reported, the largest scholarship organizations are controlled by lobbyists. The lobbyists involve lawmakers in making decisions about which students get scholarships, thus creating a wonderful avenue for trading favors between corporate interests and those lawmakers. Have some low-income students received scholarships? Probably some. But individuals donors, corporations and families with kids already in private schools did very well.

Private schools did well too. But what happens to all of the students who still attend public schools? You know, the public schools that the Texas Constitution requires the Legislature to “make suitable provision for”? Well, they get to grapple with the consequences of billions of dollars in budget cuts and yet another scheme to divert even more public money to private schools. And that’s called “reform” — sorry, “a revolution.”

The Texas Freedom Network released this press statement earlier today:

Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller responded today to news that Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, are considering a program that provides tax credits to corporate donors that subsidize tuition at private and religious schools:

“Tax credits are just a backdoor voucher scheme that diverts tax dollars from neighborhood public schools to private and religious schools. Evidence in other states shows that these tax credits are a racket. They provide a big tax loophole for corporations and often benefit mostly well-to-do families with kids already in private schools while shortchanging our kids in public schools.”

An independent report in Georgia found evidence suggesting that most students receiving the tax credit scholarships in 2009 had already been attending private schools.

– “A Failed Experiment: Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarships for Private Schools,” The Southern Education Foundation

Private schools in Georgia worked to direct tax credit donations to scholarships for the children of donors – including students already attending their schools – rather than to children from poor families seeking to move from a public schools. Under a provision of the Georgia statute, in fact, students already attending a private school need only “enroll” (but not necessarily attend) a public school to become eligible for a tax credit-funded scholarship.
“Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools,” New York Times, May 21, 2012

Two of Pennsylvania’s largest scholarship organizations are controlled by lobbyists, and they frequently ask lawmakers to help decide which schools get the money, according to interviews. The arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.
“Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools,” New York Times, May 21, 2012

A cottage industry of organizations makes money by soliciting tax credit donations and then helping private schools decide which students get the scholarships. That model gives the schools – rather than families – the real choices.
“Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools,” New York Times, May 21, 2012