AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A few dozen activists joined a pair of tea party state senators on Saturday to rally at the Texas Capitol for expanding school choice.
The gathering was organized by the national grassroots group FreedomWorks, which helped spur conservative firebrand Ted Cruz to an upset victory in Texas' U.S. Senate race last summer. But this time, its ranks were outnumbered by ordinary visitors enjoying the weekend on the Capitol grounds.
"This is a battle line we have to draw in the sand. It is a moral issue, it is in the best interest of Texas and the best interest of America," said Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Texas Senate's Education Committee. "Because the world is chaotic, they depend on America. And who does America depend on? America depends on Texas."
The Houston Republican has sponsored two major bills to expand school choice. He argues that those families who are wealthy enough already choose higher quality schools by moving, while the poor are trapped in their current ZIP codes. Patrick also says added competition will push traditional public schools to do a better job.
One of his bills may become law, while the other faces long odds. Opponents say both could drain yet more funding from public schools still reeling from the $5.4 billion in cuts to public education that the Legislature approved in 2011.
A bill that has already passed the state Senate and garnered support in the House would gradually raise the cap on the number of public charter school licenses that Texas issues from 215 to 305 over the next six years.
For now, the state has issued 209 charters. But because operators can use a single license to run multiple campuses, Texas has about 500 total charter schools educating about 154,000 children, or 3 percent of its more than 5 million public school students.
The bill also calls for closing poor-performing charter schools after three straight years of low state accountability ratings. Currently, struggling charters have been allowed to remain open for extended periods as they battle state efforts to close them in court — and critics have long questioned why Texas needs more charters when many existing ones aren't succeeding.
Patrick's other high-profile proposal has yet to be considered by the Senate. It would offer tax credits to businesses that provide scholarship funding to help students leave poor-performing public schools for private or religious ones.
That bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Ken Paxton, also addressed Saturday's rally, saying: "We are right on the argument."
"It provides opportunity for parents to have choice, it provides opportunity for children to have choice, it provides lower costs for the schools because now they have less children with more money," said Paxton, R-McKinney. "Honestly it's an upside, there's no downside for anybody in this equation."
Education groups have taken issue with that argument since schools receive state funding per pupil, meaning fewer students equals less money.
Patrick says the plan could help as many as 10,000 students transfer schools. To qualify, children have to be at risk of dropping out of school and come from households with annual incomes less than 200 percent of that needed to qualify for the national free and reduced-price lunch program. That means a family of three can participate with annual incomes up to $72,000.
While passing its version of the state budget, the House overwhelmingly voted to keep public funding in public schools — potentially crippling the chances of any voucher plan, though that amendment can still be removed from the final version of the budget in conference committee.
Patrick acknowledged Saturday that he may lose some battles on the issue but added, "If it costs me an election so be it if it moves the agenda forward."