Bad Bills to Promote Vouchers, Silence Your Voice Advance in Texas Senate

Promoting Private-School Vouchers: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wanted to get his pet private-school voucher program through the state Senate Thursday in the worst way, and he got what he wanted–one of the worst bills to come out of the Senate in the 2017 session. To get the votes needed to bring the bill up for Senate action, he had to shrink it to fit the demand of many reluctant supporters that their districts be excluded from the reach of the voucher program. In other words, they think it’s such a great idea that they want no part of it in their own back yard.

The key amendment to SB 3 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) exempts counties with a population below 285,000 from the program. If any part of a school district is in a more populous county, its schoolchildren are within reach of the voucher scheme. Otherwise, the district’s students are ineligible for the program. The upshot is that the bill targets larger urban areas of the state in 20 or so counties and exempts rural and small-town areas.  That was evidently enough to win the votes of several senators from predominantly rural districts such as Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), whose home turf would not be targeted for vouchers.

A dozen senators–ten Democrats and two Republicans–stood against the bill on principle anyway on the key vote to suspend the rules and take up the bill on the Senate floor. That vote required a 19-vote supermajority, and the amendments to narrow the bill geographically and otherwise were enough for Patrick to get exactly the 19 votes he needed and no more. All Senate Democrats except Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) voted against the bill on this key vote. All Senate Republicans except Sens. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) voted in support of considering SB 3.

In floor debate Sen. Seliger and other opponents including Sens. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) highlighted the complete lack of public accountability on the part of private schools for the use of public funds under SB 3. Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) noted the lack  of evidence that such voucher programs improve student outcomes and pointedly asked, “If vouchers are the right answer, why isn’t this a statewide bill?”

Menendez and others like Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) also pointed to the open-ended cost of the bill, at a time when the state is failing to invest what is needed to strengthen neighborhood public schools. Indeed, the school-finance experts at the independent Center for Public Policy Priorities estimate that the bill could drain more than half a billion dollars a year from the state treasury if 3 percent of Texas students were lured out of public schools and into unaccountable private schools with the subsidies the bill would provide. Sen. Taylor did his best to minimize the projected cost of the bill, but it was noteworthy that there was no advance notice of any official cost projections for the last-minute substitute version of the bill that Taylor brought to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon.

The strong stance against the bill by 12 senators of both parties is a pretty good preview of the likely reception awaiting SB 3 now in the Texas House, where bipartisan opposition to the giveaway of public funds to unaccountable private schools runs strong. Upcoming Hotlines will brief you on the next steps in the voucher battle as SB 3 heads for the House. Rest assured Texas AFT will continue to take vigorous part in that battle. With your involvement, we can turn the Legislature’s attention away from ill-conceived voucher schemes and toward a constructive agenda of increased school funding and other measures to strengthen neighborhood public schools.

Silencing Your Voice by Messing With Payroll Deduction:  By no coincidence, Thursday afternoon the Texas Senate also gave its blessing to SB 13, the bill by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) that seeks to shut you up about issues like vouchers by prohibiting your voluntary payroll deduction of dues to the professional organizations you depend on to amplify your voice at the state Capitol. The vote was 20 to 11, with every Republican voting for it and every Democrat against. Leading the debate against SB 13 Thursday were Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin, John Whitmire of Houston, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, and Royce West of Dallas. The day before these senators had joined Sens. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso, Jose Menendez of San Antonio, Borris Miles of Houston, and Sylvia Garcia of Houston in attacking SB 13 with a series of amendments pointing up the blatantly political aim of the bill:  the desire to silence the voices of school employees and other out-of-favor public employees on matters of public importance. As this rotten bill now goes over to the House, we will keep you informed and equipped to use your voice and frustrate this attack on your freedom to use your hard-earned money as you please. Reminder:  The Texas House is where a very similar bill died in 2015.

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