Ending speculation over when — or whether — his widely promoted school choice legislation would emerge, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed a bill creating a business tax scholarship for students to attend private schools.
The Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program, or Senate Bill 23, would allow economically disadvantaged and at-risk students who attend public schools to transfer to private schools, including religious institutions. Under the program, businesses would receive an up to 15-percent state tax credit in exchange for contributions to a nonprofit organization that would distribute grants to qualifying students, with priority given to those at underperforming campuses. The legislation is co-sponsored by state Sen. Ken Paxton, the McKinney Republican who filed his own tax credit scholarship bill Monday.
“In order to give the children of Texas a better education and a brighter future we must focus on creating more choices for parents including charter, online learning, and the ability for parents to find the right school for their child,” Patrick said in a news release announcing the bill Friday. “Several hundred-thousand students are stuck in low-performing schools today. This should not be acceptable to anyone.”
But despite the high-profile praise, leaders in the House, including Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, have expressed skepticism that such programs could pass in the lower chamber.
They have also generated opposition from advocacy groups in the state, including the Coalition For Public Schools, whose membership includes the state’s major education associations. The coalition released a statement Friday saying it was “appalling to see such legislation filed that would create a corporate tax loophole and voucher scholarships to divert critical dollars into an experimental voucher program to subsidize private education” following the $5.4 billion state budget cut to public education in 2011.
There is also concern about what critics of the plan view as a lack of accountability it provides for taxpayer dollars. The program would intercept the money before it hits public coffers, which would allow private schools to remain outside of regulations and accountability measures applied to the state’s public schools. At a Thursday event hosted by the Tribune, Aycock said that he considered a tax credit program to be a use of public funds — and that any proposal that did not provide adequate accountability measures for public money would be unlikely to pass out of his committee.
I’ll throw in a statement from Raise Your Hand Texas as well. I’m not going to waste my breath on this. It’s a lousy idea that will line a bunch of pockets and benefit a select few at the expense of everyone else. I’ll just add one more thing, via RYHT, that I hadn’t really thought about before: the potential for fraud.
A Texas Freedom Network Education Fund briefing paper documents serious problems with tax-credit voucher schemes in other states. Often, for example, tax-credit vouchers simply subsidize tuition for students already in private schools rather than helping needy children as promised by proponents. In fact, some Georgia private schools have worked to funnel voucher donations back to the children of the donors themselves. In addition, tax-credit voucher schemes have led to the creation of a virtual cottage industry of organizations that make money soliciting donations. Lobbyists in Pennsylvania control the state’s largest voucher organizations and use decisions about who gets vouchers to curry favor with lawmakers.
A tax-credit voucher scheme in Texas would open the door to similar problems in this state. In fact, that’s essentially the warning from Gov. Rick Perry’s former education commissioner, Robert Scott. Speaking at a Texas Tribune event in Houston last week, Scott said:
“Whether it’s public funds or it’s siphoned off tax dollars that go into a 501 (c) 3 and they get to hand out the money, the potential for fraud is incredible. Those checks are going to go out and they’re going to find out that those kids don’t actually exist, as we have with charter schools in the past.”
Tax-credit voucher schemes are a racket, which even some of the state’s most prominent Republicans are now acknowledging.
This should not be a surprise to anyone. There are many, many examples of just exactly this kind of behavior everywhere else in the tax code. Why would we want to add another avenue for it? Hair Balls and Sen. Rodney Ellis have more.