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Texas lawmakers get a look at 'school choice' bill

03/28/2013 8:58 PM

03/29/2013 6:38 AM

State Sen. Dan Patrick , R-Houston, is deeply passionate about school choice, by which he means the state finding a way for parents to receive a subsidy to help them choose to send their kids to private schools.

Last week, he broke into tears at a meeting of the Senate Education Committee, where he is the chairman, after hearing testimony from students who had dropped out of school but are struggling to go back.

"You have inspired me," Patrick told the students. "I am going to fight for you and thousands like you."

He laid out his plan this month in Senate Bill 23, the "Texas Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program."

The name demonstrates not only Patrick's goal but also his salesmanship. He avoids the term voucher, which is burdened with negatives from prior years' legislative battles.

Better to mix Lone Star pride with the image of fairness and upward mobility: Texas Equal Opportunity Scholarships.

Patrick has put a new twist on the old voucher idea, one that at first glance lends legitimacy to his use of the word scholarship.

Under SB23, parents would get money from a charitable organization, not directly from the state. That helps avoid the voucher description and could help sell Patrick's idea in another way.

Because many parents would want to send their kids to church schools, it helps to have a middleman so Texas isn't directly sending taxpayer money to a religious organization.

In an approach that has worked in other states, Patrick's bill would provide further insulation. Money for the program would never enter the state's coffers but would go directly from businesses to the scholarship-granting charitable organizations.

In exchange, the businesses would get tax breaks of as much as 15 percent of what they otherwise would pay in franchise taxes -- or, in the case of insurance companies, the taxes they normally pay on revenue from premiums.

The money might never go to the state, but isn't it state money anyway? If it reduces what otherwise would be tax revenue, isn't it the same as an expenditure?

That could make a huge difference in the legislative debate.

If it's state money, some lawmakers could argue that it otherwise could have otherwise been used to help improve struggling public schools.

Patrick partly makes up for that by giving priority to scholarship applications from students in neighborhood public schools whose academic performance has been rated "unacceptable" by the state. Students from other schools would have a shot at any remaining scholarship money.

And just how much help would one of these scholarships be for parents who want to send their kids to a private school in Tarrant County?

SB23 further limits the scholarships to students who are considered at risk of dropping out or who are from households with income "not greater than 200 percent of the income guidelines necessary to qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program."

Complicated calculations are involved, and they could change depending on how Patrick defines his terms, but it appears that a family of four with an annual income of $85,286 would qualify. Nothing in the bill makes students with family incomes far less than that any more eligible than those at the upper limit.

The bill says scholarships would be equal to "80 percent of the statewide average amount of state and local funding provided to school districts ... for a student in average daily attendance." That means individual student scholarships could be in the neighborhood of $7,000.

Regular tuition at Nolan Catholic High School in east Fort Worth is $13,170 a year, according to the school's website.

At Trinity Valley School in southwest Fort Worth, tuition at the high school level is $19,200 a year, that school's website says.

Both schools also grant financial aid to some students.

Patrick's bill has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing. Given that he's the chairman, you can bet it will.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9

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