Thousands of Texas students would have the opportunity to attend private and religious schools on the state’s dollar starting next fall if bipartisan legislation calling for a pilot voucher program is approved.
By 2005, the program would be available to any district in the state that wanted to adopt it.
This is not the first time the Texas legislature, which meets every other year, has considered the issue of tuition vouchers. Voucher legislation has been introduced in every biennial legislative session since 1995.
But this is the first time Republicans, who have historically supported vouchers, have held the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, and majorities in both chambers of the legislature.
“I believe [the voucher plan] will be a benefit to the public schools, both financially and performance-wise,” said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, the chairman of the House committee on education, and one of the sponsors of the bill filed March 12 in the House.
Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who is considered the intellectual father of the voucher concept, spoke in favor of the proposal during a marathon, 10-hour-long committee hearing on the legislation last week.
Still, opposition to the measure is mounting. And Texas is facing a huge revenue shortfall, currently estimated at $9.9 billion for the upcoming biennium.
“It was a bad idea before, and it is a worse idea now because we are broke,” said Carolyn Boyle, the coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools, an organization of 35 groups opposed to school vouchers in Texas.
The school boards of about 100 districts, including the 56,000-student San Antonio Independent School District, which would be one of the 11 pilot districts, have passed resolutions opposing the plan.
The plan is being discussed while the legislature considers cutting the K-12 education budget to $19.5 billion for fiscal 2004 and 2005, down from $22.3 billion for fiscal 2002 and 2003.
Under the proposal, students would qualify for vouchers, which Mr. Grusendorf, a Republican, calls “freedom scholarships,” based on family income. To be eligible, a family’s income could not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The academic performance of the students’ schools would not be a consideration.
“These can be the top kids at the top schools,” said Ms. Boyle, of the coalition that opposes school vouchers.
Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Tom Craddick, the speaker of the House, all of whom are Republicans, support Mr. Grusendorf’s legislation, which is co-sponsored by three other legislators, including two Democrats.
“I’m glad to know there are Republicans and Democrats willing to take this step,” Gov. Perry said in a statement.
How Many Slots?
The bill would limit the pilot program to districts that enroll more than 40,000 students, and which have a majority of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
Eleven districts, including the 166,000-student Dallas Independent School District, and the 44,000-student Alief Independent School District in suburban Houston, would qualify for the pilot project. But, beginning in the fall of 2005, the program would be open to any district whose school board voted to participate, according to the legislation.
Ten percent of the voucher’s value would be left at the student’s original school district to offset some of the costs of running the voucher program. The remaining 90 percent of the value of the voucher would go to the participating private school to pay for a student’s entire tuition.
But participating private schools would not be able to charge students in the program more for tuition than the value of the voucher, according to the bill.
In the coming fall, state officials estimate that nearly 600,000 students in the state would be eligible for vouchers. The value of a voucher would be based on the average amount of money the student’s district spends per pupil for maintenance and operations.
According to a fiscal analysis from the state’s legislative budget board, only about 22,800 slots would be open in existing private schools in the state next fall, however.
The Texas Education Agency estimates that only 8,000 students would participate in the program in the fall of 2003, and 15,000 in the fall of 2004, because many private schools would not be willing to accept lower tuition rates.
Even at that rate of participation, the legislative budget board estimates that the program would cost the 11 pilot districts $40 million in 2004 and $75 million in 2005.
Texas is not alone in pursuing a new state-sponsored voucher program. A bill to create a pilot voucher program in Colorado has passed the state House there and is awaiting a full Senate vote. (“Colorado Poised to OK Vouchers for Needy Pupils,” March 12, 2003.)
Meanwhile, Louisiana lawmakers are expected to consider voucher legislation as well when their session convenes at the end of March.