Senators debate school vouchers bill

By Diana Zoga

The Texas Senate is getting its first taste of what should be a long and contentious debate over voucher plans that supporters say promote "school choice."

Proposals championed by powerful Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick let families get state funding to remove children from struggling public schools and send them to private and religious alternatives.

Democrats, during Thursday's Senate Education Committee hearing, decried the idea as funneling funding from already cash-strapped public schools. They also worried that private schools won't be held to state academic accountability standards.

But Sen. Donna Campbell, sponsor of one of the top plans, said making schools adhere to free-market principles of choice will ensure funding is spent more efficiently.

DISD, however, is asking lawmakers to pull back on the idea.

Superintendent Mike Miles sent a letter to the Senate that says a voucher program would undermine transformation efforts the district is already taking.

"I don't agree with DISD a lot of times, but on this one, I'll side with them," said DISD parent Chris Canellos. "I don't think public dollars should go to private schools."

With three kids in DISD schools, Canellos says he'd turn down a state voucher to send them somewhere else.

Jackey Morataya, the parent of a first grader at Lakewood Elementary School, agreed that she wouldn't move her son, either.

"We don't know what's going to happen five years from now," said Morataya. "We don't know what's going to happen two years from now... as of right now, we'd like for him to stay here."

Other families, however, testified in favor of vouchers at Thursday's hearing.

Still, the president of the largest teachers' union in Dallas argues that a voucher program would hurt more students than it helps, pulling money away from public schools.

"It's a Band-Aid fix," said Rena Honea with Alliance AFT. "We've not addressed the true problems for the economically disadvantaged that are not getting the equal educational opportunity they need. "

The debate over vouchers isn't new. Patrick last session promoted major school voucher bills, but they stalled without passing either chamber.

There are a handful of bills being considered that offer different kinds of voucher programs.

One of them, Senate Bill 4, limits vouchers to just low-income families. That bill is authored by Larry Taylor.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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