AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry told the State Board of Education on Friday that it's time for Texas to increase the number of charter schools allowed to operate statewide and embrace a voucher system that would let parents get their kids out of poor-performing public schools and into private ones.
"In terms of philosophy, this is really where the rubber meets the road, where the ongoing efforts to improve our public education system occur," the United States' longest-serving governor told the 15-member board, which features eight new faces after November's election.
Perry largely repeated the education priorities he laid out for lawmakers in his seventh State of the State three days earlier. He said Texas has about 150,000 students in charter schools but that more than 100,000 others are on waiting lists.
"Not every student thrives in the same setting in schools. Texas' academic future must be built on the flexibility necessary to serve those different students," Perry said. "That future will, by necessity, involve more public charter schools, which offer parents a tuition-free alternative to their neighborhood schools."
Texas caps the number of licenses to operate charter schools at 215, though it is possible to operate multiple campuses using one license. Lawmakers have introduced a flurry of bills to ease or eliminate the cap, but similar measures have not been approved in the past — despite Perry's frequent calls for more charters.
"It's also time to introduce scholarship programs that give students a choice, especially those who are locked in to low-performing schools," Perry added.
Critics say "scholarship" is code for a voucher system that would drain state funding from public schools and divert it to private ones. Still, expanding "school choice" has been championed by many leading Republicans in the Legislature, including Dan Patrick, head of the Senate Education Committee.
Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association said the Legislature should instead focus on rolling back $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools imposed in 2011.
"The governor needs to reorder his priorities when it comes to public education," Robison said. He said the association doesn't oppose charter schools but that they aren't the "magic bullet" solution to better education trumpeted by many conservatives.
While much of the major legislation calling for expanding vouchers in Texas has yet to be filed, such bills would likely give parents a chunk of state funding to spend on private-school tuition, or extend tax credits to businesses that offer educational scholarships students.
Robison said his group is "very strongly opposed to the voucher program by any name" and suggested that another way to characterize such a plan could be "a private corporation tax loophole."
Perry also said Friday that high school students need to get more instruction in career and technical training in fields such as engineering or veterinary science.
"These jobs are stable, they're good paying," Perry said. "They're also waiting for that skilled workforce."
Before speaking, Perry went around the room and shared handshakes with some board members, bear hugs with others. "Is it still fun?" he jokingly asked Barbara Cargill, a Republican from The Woodlands who Perry appointed as the board's chairwoman in July 2011. "Catching javelins, after a while, gets a little old."
Patrick unveiled a bill Thursday that would overhaul high school graduation requirements to better emphasize "workforce development." It was endorsed by 19 industry trade organizations, which say Texas students must be better-prepared for future high-tech jobs.
"The future's here," Perry said. "It has arrived."