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Patrick teases his school choice proposals

He doesn’t want to call it “vouchers”, but if it walks like a duck…

“If there’s one message that I want to send, it’s that I want to champion public education,” said Patrick, the new chairman of the Senate Public Education Committee.

Whether the education community is ready to embrace Patrick in that role is another matter.

Through his chairmanship and a recent alliance with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, he has the powerful platform he once lacked. His ambitions are pinned on expanding school choice in the state’s public education system. The plan is expected to include vouchers for private schools, a policy previously opposed by every major education association in the state and many within his own party.

Patrick declined to discuss the details of his proposal, which he said he intended to announce before Thanksgiving along with Dewhurst. But he said the legislation would be broader than many might think.

“When people attack me on vouchers, I look at the word voucher as some people see it like I look at a rotary telephone. It’s outdated,” he said. “When we talk about choice today, it’s the choice to choose schools within a district, potentially across district lines. It’s charter schools. It’s virtual schools. It’s online learning. It’s the secular and religious schools in the private sector.”

I suppose anything is possible, but I sure don’t see much in Patrick’s record to support a claim of championing public education. Patrick has relentlessly championed property tax cuts, which has directly led to the funding crisis the state faces today, and public education bore the brunt of that last session. You can’t champion public education without championing a sufficient revenue stream for public education.

But that’s an argument that isn’t going to be resolved any time soon. I want to examine the bits of policy Patrick mentions. Let’s take them one at a time.

– “When we talk about choice today, it’s the choice to choose schools within a district, potentially across district lines.” I don’t know how it is in other districts, but in HISD we already have a fair amount of freedom to pick a school. There may be an application process and some prerequisites to qualify for a specific school, and you may not get your preferred choice, but that’s life. As long as the schools have the resources they need to handle the demand for their services, I have no problems at all with this. As for attending a school in a different district, I’d need to know more. I don’t have any philosophical objections to this, but I am concerned about how the funding would work. If I decide I want to send my kids to, say, Clements High School in Fort Bend County, I’d be sending them to a school whose district doesn’t get the benefit of my property taxes. What mechanism would there be to ensure that districts don’t get swamped by kids outside their borders, and to ensure they can handle the load they do get?

– “It’s charter schools.” I don’t have any problems with the idea of helping out charter schools, but we need to be very clear about what that means, because there are acceptable ways of doing that and there are bad ways of doing that. The previously-floated idea of using the Permanent School Fund as a source for building capital for charter schools is a bad idea, since it runs counter to the stated purpose of the PSF, which is supposed to be invested for maximal return. Shifting funds from public schools to charter schools in a zero-sum fashion is a bad idea. If Patrick wants to find a suitable and stable funding source for charter schools, I’m open to that. Let me hear the details and we can go from there.

– “It’s virtual schools. It’s online learning.” I am deeply skeptical of this. This sounds more like buzzwords than proven craft. While there is value in online learning as a supplement, and a virtual classroom is better than none, I think we’re a long way away from this being the best way to go about doing education. My feeling is that this is the sort of thing that will be pushed as a way to cut costs, without regard to effectiveness. I’m very wary of anything that falls under this classification.

– “It’s the secular and religious schools in the private sector.” And to this I say No. I refer to what Ronald Trowbridge wrote for my opening position. I believe this is an inappropriate use of public funds, and as we have already seen, there are plenty of other ways to promote “school choice” that don’t involve private schools. Let’s talk about those things and see what we can do with them.

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One Comment

  1. Al says:

    If virtual schools and online learning are so relevant, why do we still have real live football coaches?