updated 5:04 PM EDT, Apr 1, 2015
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Education Advocates Say School Plan Laced With “Poison Pill”

AUSTIN, Texas - Public-education advocates are crying foul over a tax-credit provision in a Texas school-reform package proposed this week by the incoming head of the Senate Education Committee. They say it's a backdoor attempt to introduce school vouchers to the state. 

Past voucher plans have proven too unpopular to win legislative approval. This one is tied to other initiatives designed to make it easier to swallow, claims to Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers. He says aspects of the package embraced by the education community - such as reducing the importance of standardized testing - should be considered on their own.

"Separating those out from the 'poison pills' that are so objectionable that we will do everything we can to see that they do not become law. I think a more honest approach would be to put the voucher ideas up by themselves for a simple up-or-down vote."

An actual bill has not yet been written, but, in his proposal, Republican Senator Dan Patrick does not use the word voucher. The plan would give tax credits to businesses that donate to a scholarship fund dedicated to help families pay for private-school tuition. Malfaro says, no matter what it's called, it would divert tax dollars from needy public schools.

Malfaro adds that any form of a voucher plan will be subject to legal challenges if tax dollars are used to fund religious education. The Texas Constitution, he says, requires the state to provide a public education system - not farm it out to others who wouldn't be subject to state rules.

"This is a fundamental charge to the state government. And there is an effort to abdicate that responsibility. And it's taking the form of un-funding the public school system."

The tax-credit scholarship would likely start as a pilot program, to be expanded only after it can be shown that it does not drain money from public schools. Malfaro says schools automatically lose funds whenever students switch out of the public system. And he thinks lawmakers will simply cut overall education spending if the tax credits reduce revenues. He notes that, last session, legislators slashed education spending by more than $5 billion.

Senator Patrick says his tax-credit-scholarship proposal would give low-income families alternatives to low-performing schools. Private-school advocates support the plan, saying increased competition would benefit all schools, but Malfaro says voucher experiments in other states have only weakened public systems.

"Storefront schools spring up, pretending to offer a quality education, and then we have unaccountable fly-by-night operators that are interested in making money off of school children."

Tax-credit scholarships, he adds, would not cover the entire tuition for legitimate private schools, so he thinks the plan would mainly benefit upper-middle-class families that could afford to make the move.