AUSTIN, Texas — The public education committee in the House now is stacked with lawmakers on both sides of the school voucher issue, making it one of the hot spots for this session’s school choice fight.
Speaker of the House Rep. Dade Phelan announced committee membership on Wednesday, naming a new chair and vice chair for Public Education. Rep. Brad Buckley, a Republican and veterinarian from Killeen, was named chair. Rep. Alma Allen, a Democrat from Houston and former member of the State Board of Education, will serve as vice chair.
These appointments set the stage for what is expected to be a major school choice fight. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have pledged to pass school choice legislation this session, as Patrick has pledged for almost every session he has been in office.
During a discussion with online publication The Texan last month, Patrick noted the Texas Senate is the only body to pass a school choice bill, in both 2015 and 2017.
“We are very focused on passing the bill,” Patrick said. “The governor says he’s going to be campaigning on it, so he’s locked in and has supported it, as he has in the past. But I think he’s going to make a bigger effort (to support it.)”
Then Patrick went on to make the argument that school choice makes sense in the denser, more urban parts of the state. Fully a third of the 1,200 or so of the school districts in the state have fewer than 500 students, Patrick said. A private school makes no sense in these areas, he added. It also often leads to opposition from rural Republican lawmakers who see that losing a handful of students can make a big dent in a small district’s budget.
The flip side of that is that 49 school districts in Texas have about 50% of student enrollment and most of the failing schools in the state, Patrick said, adding that some rural school districts do have issues, but not as much as their urban neighbors.
“So, we need to find a way,” Patrick said. “Because at the end of the day, you have to count the votes, the House has to count the votes. So, if it takes coming up with a program that helps hold our rural districts harmless so if they lose a few kids, they still get paid, then we have to do that because we have to have some choice. We just have to have it.”
The passage of school choice bills almost always comes down to the Texas House, and the bill crafted and passed by the House Public Education Committee.
Both Buckley and Allen are ostensibly supporters of public education. Allen worked in the Houston Independent School District for 39, in roles from teacher to central office administrator. Buckley, on his campaign website, touts the fact he is the son and grandson of school educators in Killeen. Buckley’s wife, Susan, is the chief learning officer for secondary schools in Killeen Independent School District.
Voucher supporters, including the American Federation for Children-Texas, praised the selection of Buckley as chair of the public education committee. Nathan Cunneen, president of AFC-Texas, took advantage of the tax credit scholarship in Florida. He praised Buckley as a lawmaker committed to the best education for all children.
“AFC-TX is committed to working alongside Chairman Buckley, Speaker Phelan, and the entire Texas Legislature to provide the greatest educational opportunities for all those living in the Lone Star State,” Cunneen said.
Phelan, who has not taken a public stance on vouchers, tipped his hand a bit with the announcement of committees. Membership on House committees is divided into two categories: members who earn a seat on a committee by their seniority and those who are selected by the speaker. Speaker selections for Public Education leaned toward public education supporters, including former teacher Rep. James Talarico, as well as former school board members Reps. Charles Cunningham, Gina Hinojosa and Steve Allison.
Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, also appointed by Phelan, has opposed vouchers but refused donations from teacher association political action committees, because of their “left-wing ideas.” Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, is a vocal supporter of school choice. Seniority appointments also include Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, chair of the Texas Freedom Caucus.
Abbott has advocated for school choice as an extension of parental empowerment. During a stop to visit Kings Academy in South Dallas in August, Abbott said parents are the best people to decide where their children should attend school.
“There are some parents in this state who want a choice that is different than the government-assigned school for their child. Those parents know better, which school is best for their, than does the government,” Abbott said. “For Texas to be able to succeed, our students must be able to succeed, and no one is more important in that process than those children’s parents.”
Giving parents a true choice about where to educate their child “gives parents the power they need and deserve to provide the education that is best for their child,” Abbott said.