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Voucher bill a hard line for Texas Senate?

Charles E Nash Elementary School is a Blue Ribbon School. Kindergarden teacher Jessica Boggs gets students ready for the end of the school day on Friday, October 10, 2014.
Charles E Nash Elementary School is a Blue Ribbon School. Kindergarden teacher Jessica Boggs gets students ready for the end of the school day on Friday, October 10, 2014. Star-Telegram

A private school voucher bill introduced by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and backed this week by two of Austin’s most powerful interest groups would be a hard-line approach if it is adopted by Senate Republicans.

And those Republicans, whose number will increase to 20 when Konni Burton of Colleyville replaces Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, could have the power to pass the bill.

Incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is a strong voucher proponent. The new legislative session starts at noon Tuesday.

Some in Austin anticipate that the Senate will change its rules so that 19 members can move a bill to the floor for debate, down from the 21 required in previous years.

Campbell touted her “Taxpayer Savings Grant Program,” Senate Bill 276, on Wednesday with strong support from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, and the Texas Association of Business.

It’s virtually the same proposal she made during the 2013 legislative session, which received a hearing before the Education Committee, chaired at the time by Patrick, but then went nowhere.

Campbell’s main selling point, other than the frequently cited one of expanding school choice, is that she says the program would save Texans $1.7 billion over five years.

A Legislative Budget Board estimate on the 2013 version of the bill said it would save $1.1 billion over five years.

A study commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Association of Manufacturers contains yet a third savings estimate, $2.3 billion over five years.

How does giving students money to pay private school tuition result in budget savings? Campbell’s bill limits voucher amounts to 60 percent of the statewide average per-student cost of operating public schools.

The remaining 40 percent, estimated at $2,500 to $3,429 per participating student, is counted as savings.

There are plenty of reasons to question the numbers and argue about the actual savings.

The costs of running a public school don’t go down proportionately as each student leaves.

Most students are expected to stay in public schools. A teacher in charge of 20 students costs the same as one with 25, and the price of keeping the school open does not change.

Still, it’s reasonable to assume some savings.

But the voucher question turns more on politics. While proponents see vouchers as a way of expanding educational opportunity, opponents say any money taken away from public schools weakens them.

Previous voucher proposals have tried several ways to win opponents over.

Bills have been proposed that would set up trial programs available only in certain school districts, or only to students in low-performing public schools, or only to low-income students.

Campbell’s proposal would be open to all students in public schools and those just entering kindergarten or first grade.

Two years ago, Patrick carried the leading voucher bill, the “Texas Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

Supported by donations from Texas businesses in exchange for credits against state taxes, the grants would have been 80 percent of the per-student expenditure for public schools.

The money in the program would have been limited to $100 million the first year, escalating in subsequent years.

Only at-risk students from households that met certain income limits could participate. The projected five-year budget savings was $32.9 million.

Patrick’s bill was approved by his committee and sent to the full Senate, but he couldn’t garner enough votes to bring it up for debate.

Beginning next week, we’ll see how much the picture has changed.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9