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Texas District Mulls Student Aid for Private Schools

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An affluent school district near Austin, Texas, whose students are high achievers, has proposed giving scholarships to students to attend private schools in what the school board says is a move to ease overcrowding.

Late last week, officials of the Lake Travis district were awaiting a ruling from the state education agency about the legality of their plan, as were opponents of voucher programs, who were preparing to take legal action if the district gets the go-ahead and moves forward.

The Parents as Partners Scholarship Program, approved by the Lake Travis school board last month, would give parents wishing to send their children to private schools about $3,000 annually for tuition. The private schools, including religious schools, would have to comply with state and federal regulations that govern public schools, officials said.

To relieve overcrowding, the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District adopted a program this fall to send students to private schools. Unlike the Lake Travis proposal, however, Houston contracted with specific private schools rather than giving vouchers to parents to choose their own. So far, 190 students and one school are participating in the program. ("To Relieve Crowding, Houston Turns to Private School," Oct. 23, 1996.)

Lake Travis school board member Frederick E. Walker said that he proposed the program to deal with overcrowding in the fast-growing district of 2,900 students. Voters last month rejected a $44 million bond issue to build new facilities.

"The proposal arose from concerns and desires expressed by parents and was developed to address district concerns about overcrowding and to achieve a cost savings for the taxpayers of our district," Mr. Walker wrote in response to questions that Education Week posed last week.

Unanswered Questions

But the measure has raised questions about providing public school dollars to parents who might already be able afford private school tuition. Existing voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are targeted to low-income families.

"The Lake Travis proposal is unwise, unlawful, and nothing more than a state-funded welfare program for the rich that would harm the public school students of Texas," Carole Shields, the president of People for the American Way, a Washington-based liberal watchdog group, wrote in a letter to Mike Moses, the Texas education commissioner.

The Texas State Teachers Association, the largest teachers' union in the state, has also protested the plan and vowed to go to court if the Texas Education Agency gives its approval.

Bert Vasut, the chairman of the Lake Travis school board, said last week that he had not been consulted before the proposal was made.

"I didn't have any idea what the content was going to be," said Mr. Vasut, who was not present to vote on the issue. "We are still fairly unclear about the ramifications. At the time, with a lot of unanswered questions, I would have opposed it."

Critics have also questioned the intent of the proposal. Mr. Walker is active in the building campaign for a Roman Catholic church and school in the district, which, critics say, could attract students under the plan. But Mr. Walker pointed out that the proposal prohibits school officials from encouraging students to attend private schools.

Considered a "property wealthy" district under Texas' school-funding-equalization program, Lake Travis receives about $700,000 in state aid, based on a per-pupil formula. Because the state deems that property tax revenues there are enough to provide a balanced education budget, the district pays back about $2.3 million to equalize funding for poorer districts in the state.

Lake Travis is identified as an "exemplary" school district by the Texas Education Agency, meaning that 90 percent of its overall student body and 90 percent of the students from each ethnic group pass all sections of state tests. It also has less than a 1 percent dropout rate.

Until the TEA rules on the proposal's legality, district officials said, it is unclear whether the program would save or cost the district money. Any savings would depend on whether the district could continue counting the scholarship students in its enrollment figures. The district spends about $4,700 per student.

Regardless of the outcome, Lake Travis officials are planning to use portable facilities to accommodate an anticipated overflow of students until new facilities are built. A more modest bond proposal will go before local voters early next year.

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