AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The head of the Texas Senate Education Committee on Friday filed a highly anticipated bill offering businesses tax credits for donations that help poor and at-risk children leave public schools for private ones.
Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick has spent months clamoring for expanding "school choice" but waited until the last day of the legislative session to file bills formally offering his proposal.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who oversees the flow of legislation in the state Senate, assigned it SB 23, a low enough number that debating the measure will be a priority before the Legislature adjourns in May. It is likely to face stiff, bipartisan opposition.
Co-sponsored with fellow tea party favorite Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, Patrick's plan allows firms to get up to a 15 percent credit on state business or franchise taxes for donating to nonprofits that provide funding so low-income and at-risk children can leave traditional schools for private and religious alternatives.
"Several hundred-thousand students are stuck in low-performing schools today," Patrick said in a statement. "This should not be acceptable to anyone."
Patrick calls himself an "education evangelist," and says that while wealthy families can afford to move so their kids attend strong public schools, low-income students are "held hostage by their Zip codes."
But defenders of traditional schools dismiss the plan as a new wrinkle on long controversial voucher systems that funnel money away from already cash-strapped traditional public schools.
The Coalition for Public Schools said the bill and other educational proposals championed by some conservative lawmakers show "our public schools are under attack."
"It is appalling to see such legislation filed that would create a corporate tax loophole and voucher scholarships to divert critical dollars into an experimental voucher program to subsidize private education," the umbrella group of religious, child advocacy and education organizations said in a statement.
Dewhurst has been a vocal supporter of would-be scholarship programs — but fellow Republican and House Speaker Joe Straus says there's little chance any bill using public money to fund private schools can pass the lower chamber — despite the GOP majority there. As recently as 2007, the Texas House solidly voted to reject state funding going to private schools.
Patrick counters that giving parents and students more educational options will increase competition between public and private schools and lead to better outcomes. He has introduced a separate bill erasing the current cap of 215 licenses Texas issues to operate charter schools and creating a special board to oversee a flood of new charter applications he expects will follow.
About 154,000 of the state's more than 5 million public school students attend charter schools, but Patrick says 101,000-plus other kids are on waitlists to attend charters where there's no space.
"In order to give the children of Texas a better education and a brighter future," he said, "we must focus on creating more choices for parents including charter, online learning, and the ability for parents to find the right school for their child."