With Vouchers Blocked by the Legislature, Texas Education Commissioner Tries an End Run

For more than 20 years and a dozen legislative sessions, the Texas legislature has defeated one proposal after another that would have diverted scarce taxpayer dollars from public schools and transferred the money to unaccountable private schools. Just last year there was a test of legislative sentiment on the issue in the Texas House, and by a bipartisan supermajority of 103 to 43 your state representatives voted to ban any spending for private-school vouchers.

Nonetheless, Commissioner of Education Michael Williams, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee at the helm of the Texas Education Agency, now is trying to bring private-school vouchers to Texas through the back door. In an application this month to the U.S. Department of Education for federal grant funding to expand pre-K in Texas, he has included a proposed pre-K voucher program that would fund private preschools at a rate of up to $8,000 per child.

A broad coalition of community, parent, educator, and faith-based groups responded on October 30 by calling on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to reject Commissioner Williams’ bid for federal dollars to fund this voucher scheme. The Coalition for Public Schools, which includes Texas AFT, said this part of the state’s pre-K grant application “clearly providesvouchers for private preschool programsand is an attempt on the part of the TEA to divert federal funds to private institutions, even though those funds are clearly intended for pre-kindergarten programs for Texas public school children, which are already underfunded.”

Citing the unbroken string of defeats for voucher proposals in the Texas legislature, the coalition said:

 Texas legislators of both political parties have consistently refused to support vouchers for private schools. In addition, language has repeatedly been placed in state budget riders that expressly prohibits the use of state monies on vouchers to prevent executive action that would lead to their implementation. By approving [the voucher component] in this application, the federal government would clearly be violating the intent of our elected representatives by allowing the appointed Texas Commissioner of Education to use this application to make an end run around the legislature on this issue….We believe that quality education should be provided for ALL children and that vouchers will redirect taxpayer funds that are collected for the common good to private parties engaged in for-profit ventures.

Secretary Duncan is expected to decide by the end of this year which states will receive the pre-K grants. A total of $160 million is at stake, with Texas being eligible for up to $30 million a year for four years. Texas is competing with 35 other states for this discretionary grant funding from the feds. Other, unobjectionable elements of the Texas proposal would build upon public preschool programs operated by school districts.

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