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April 9: Choice Day in the Texas Senate

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At last, we come down to it. The great (education) battle of our time (the 83rd Texas Legislature). On Tuesday, April 9, the Texas Senate Education Committee will take up multiple private school choice bills, including but potentially not limited to statewide education scholarships and tax credits for businesses wishing to create education scholarships in their communities. It promises to be an intense hearing.

We've recently seen a preview of just how difficult it is to enact education reform in Texas. Last Thursday (April 4), during a debate on Texas' budget for the upcoming biennium, the state's House dealt the school choice movement in Texas a blow. On a proposed amendment that would prevent taxpayer dollars from going toward private school scholarships, the House voted 103-43, in favor. Though the amendment may ultimately prove meaningless (its wording is sufficiently sloppy so that school choice programs could easily be created around it), it's symbolically troubling. The Texas House proved to be a substantial blockade against school choice back in 2007, and from the look of Thursday's vote, little has changed in 6 years.

However, if you believe Texas needs private school choice, there may be reason for optimism. The Senate Education Committee has passed multiple public school choice measures, including an expansion of Texas' open-enrollment charter school cap. Whether such a bill can survive the Texas House (or even the entirety of the Senate floor) remains to be seen, but for now, it is moving with bipartisan support.

Similarly encouraging has been the discussion on Texas' parent-trigger law. Parent-trigger laws allow parents of students on a given campus to, by majority vote, re-constitute a failing public school and allow a charter operator to take over that campus' administration. Texas has such a law on the books, but it required that a school fail for six consecutive years before the trigger could be pulled. The Senate Education Committee passed a bill to reduce that time period to three years, meaning a parent could actually use the trigger while their child was still attending the failing school.

But none of those bills faced the opposition that the private school choice bills will on April 9. There are some in this state who will attempt to block any effort to give parents education options, because they view such efforts as an assault on public schools (even though they shouldn't). They are vocal, organized, and powerful. They will be out in force in the hearing. Suffice it to say, it will be lively.

Texas education needs change. The reasons for it -- an embarrassing dropout rate, poor academic performance, rising education costs -- are clear. Our student body is growing at an annual rate so that we're roughly adding the state of Wyoming's public school system every year. Do we honestly believe that every one of the lower and middle income family in that group, hell, in all of Texas, is going to be best served by the public school that's physically closest to them? All parents, not just wealthy ones, need to have an opportunity to choose an education that best suits the needs of their child.

The harsh reality is that every past attempt to bring school choice to Texas on a statewide scale has failed. This session's effort to bring things like education scholarships and tax credits into being here is an underdog's push. But it's a push worth making. A push that will improve education opportunities for all Texas students, and a push that could finally create some competition within our state's highly rigid education system. April 9 is a big day for the future of Texas schools. I wish this issue were less polarizing, less of a fight within the Texas education community. As it is one, I'm keeping in mind that sometimes the underdog wins.