Thousands rally for school vouchers at Texas capitol

Thousands rallied at the state capitol Tuesday calling for the legislature to pass a school choice bill that would give parents more say in where their child and their money goes to school.

The governor of Texas added political muscle to Tuesday’s rally supporting school vouchers, which have stalled repeatedly in the country's largest Republican state despite steadfast support from top conservatives.

Marching bands with thundering drumlines and hundreds of students and teachers -- many in yellow-and-black "National School Choice Week" scarfs -- converged outside the Texas Capitol.

Gov. Greg Abbott made a relatively rare appearance with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite who has long been Texas' leading advocate for vouchers where families get state money to remove children from public schools and send them to private and religious alternatives.

"This is not a Republican issue, it's not a Democrat issue," Abbott said. "This is a civil rights issue."

Critics say the bill would hurt public school districts. If you pull your child out of a public school for a charter or a private school, the state would take the dollars it would have sent a local district for your student into an education savings account.

Parents would in effect be deciding how that money is spent.

“All families irrespective of zip code should have the right to choose the best educational opportunity and option for their children,” said Dominick Di Falco of KIPP Academy Charter Schools.

The KIPP Charter Schools are top ranked nationwide, with 95 percent of eighth graders who passed the Algebra I End of Course exam last year.

“We want to make sure our kids are well-rounded both academically and socially because it will prepare them for the rigors of college and we're getting great outcomes as a result,” Di Falco said.

DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa points to the districts collegiate academies and magnets as choices within the public school system.

“It’s a disappointment that the leadership feels that way because ironically, 75 to 80 percent are in traditional public education,” Hinojosa said.

Kathy Miller, president of the education watchdog group Texas Freedom Network said Tuesday that vouchers "are a scheme that strips critical funds from public schools and gives a discount to individuals who can already afford private school."

In 2013, Texas dramatically expanded its number of public charter schools. Still, advocates say waitlists of children hoping to attend them continues to exceed 100,000 -- and suggest that vouchers could fill that void. Many of the students participating in the Capitol rally were visiting from charter schools around the state.

Last session, a sweeping voucher plan passed the Texas Senate, but died in the House, where Democrats have long teamed with rural Republicans wary of hurting schools that are the lifeblood of their small communities to keep public money in public schools.

The Senate this year is promoting "educational savings accounts" letting families use public money for private schooling, as well as tax breaks for businesses that sponsor private school scholarships.

So far, though, there is little indication such plans will be any better received in Texas' lower chamber than in the past. 

"Traditionally, the members of the House have not supported spending taxpayer dollars at private schools," Jason Embry, a spokesman for Republican Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, said Tuesday "and there are many questions to be answered on this issue in the months ahead."

Abbott has promised to sign a school choice bill if it gets to his desk.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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