Mike Norman

Stage is set for a fight on private school vouchers

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, defeated by state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston in his Republican primary bid for a fourth term, has handed his nemesis a nicely wrapped gift for the November general election campaign.

He gave Patrick a platform to boost one of his favorite political issues: private school vouchers.

Dewhurst has told the Senate Education Committee, which Patrick chairs, to study “the impact of education tax credits,” a voucher financing mechanism, in preparation for the legislative session that begins in January.

Patrick authored a bill on exactly that topic that received committee approval in 2013’s regular session. He’s pushed for vouchers since he entered the Senate in 2007.

With his interim charge, Dewhurst also gave Patrick’s Democratic opponent for lieutenant governor, Senate veteran Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, an opportunity to contest the issue. She voted against Patrick’s bill in a 2013 committee hearing.

The committee has not yet set a hearing on the voucher issue, but it seems a sure bet that there will be one after Labor Day when the campaigns heat up. How could a media-savvy politician like Patrick pass that up?

Patrick and Van de Putte have agreed to meet for a televised debate Sept. 29 in Austin.

At a committee hearing on April 9, 2013, it was not Van de Putte but Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis, now the Democratic nominee for governor, who directly confronted Patrick on vouchers.

Davis, who was not a member of the education committee during the 2013 session, nevertheless used the courtesy normally extended to all senators to sit at the head table and raise questions.

The discussion, polite by Senate rules but unmistakably confrontational, boiled down to the classic and very emotional differences between sides of the voucher debate.

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Wealthy people in Texas have plenty of choices about where to send their kids to school, Patrick said. Even people who are not wealthy have choices if they are able to move to a district, often in the suburbs, that has good schools.

But, Patrick asked, how could anyone not want to help students from homes with little money, who depend on public transportation and are stuck in poorly performing public schools?

The other side of the coin, from Davis: We should focus our energy and resources on improving all public schools, because even with vouchers we will be “leaving behind a huge number of students.”

Nothing says Patrick would have to propose the same bill he pushed during the 2013 session again next year. In fact, he told Davis during the committee hearing that he wanted a bigger bill.

“But I am trying to be reasonable in step one of trying to prove this program to be a good program,” he said.

Depending on the makeup of the rest of the Senate next year, a win in November and a position as its presiding officer could make Patrick feel bolder.

Briefly, his 2013 bill would have given dollar-for-dollar insurance tax or franchise tax credits to companies that donate to nonprofits that in turn would award vouchers to pay students’ private school expenses.

The vouchers would have gone to students from low-income homes whose public schools were rated by the state as poor-performing.

The total in tax credits would have been limited to $100,000, which Patrick said would be a tiny fraction of what the state spends on public schools.

Regardless of what that number is, Patrick insisted, vouchers would take “zero dollars” away from current public education spending.

Davis wasn’t buying that one. The bill never made it to a Senate vote.

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