Dan Patrick’s school vouchers go against conservative principles

TEXAS LT. GOV. Dan Patrick’s school voucher initiatives aren’t conservative, they’re entitlements. And they’re absurd.

The absurdity goes full bore when proponents make voucher entitlements sound like the most fire-breathing conservative concept since Moses came down from Sinai.

In recent years, consultants have rebranded poorly polling “vouchers” to a more conservative sounding “school choice,” accompanied with market economy jargon.

But, by whatever name, using levers of the state to pool other people’s money for an individual’s private use isn’t authentic conservativism.

Risking deconstruction of Texas institutions and traditions via user-based fees for public services (beginning with education, then on to roads, hospitals, prisons, etc) isn’t fiscal responsibility.

Questioning Texas Constitution framers’ commitment to liberty for requiring “suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools” is constitutional conservatism.

The whole scheme is absurd as watching William F. Buckley Jr peddle Lone Star Cards.

WHEN VOUCHERS COME to the next Texas Legislature, they’ll be called “Education Savings Accounts.”

Patrick lieutenant state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, says ESAs could be used by students leaving public schools for “private school tuition, online course fees, private tutoring and costs associated with high school students taking college courses early.”

Because Texas annually spends approximately $8,500 per public school student, ESAs proponents argue that parents are entitled to these dollars in a “savings account.”

However, median home value in Texas is around $159,000, yielding only $1,700 in property taxes and roughly $500 in sales taxable transactions toward public education.

Which means that average “savings accounts” would need public dollars from the state budget to reconcile the difference of about $6,300. Per child, per year.

In rural Texas, where school districts are the lifeblood, the pride and a true reflection of the community, most folks are far removed from school choice — geographically and philosophically. (Only 4 percent of rural counties have charter school “competition.”)

But ESAs could prove long-held suspicions right: vouchers are just a way to make us pay for city kids to get private education. Our public dollars (and expanded state regulation) into their private schools.

For many, school choice means freedom to inter-transfer within a district or homeschool (we’ve done both with our children). But in the Texas Senate, it clearly means voucher entitlements.

PATRICK TOUTS SCHOOL CHOICE as both a top legislative priority and “the civil rights issue of our time.”

But given Patrick’s seeming inattention to thousands of children currently caught in the tentacles of circumstance across Texas, it’s fair to question both his priorities and his motivation.

Every day in Texas, Child Protective Services fails its obligation to check on nearly a thousand children at immediate risk of sexual or physical abuse. Health and Human Services administers therapy cuts to disabled children, many of whom are rural, many of whom are babies who needed the therapy in order to breathe, eat, walk and talk.

What’s more, a Houston Chronicle investigation recently discovered an arbitrary Texas Education Agency practice of capping special education enrollment at 8.5 percent across 1,200 school districts, compared to national enrollment of 13 percent, in an apparent effort to curb funding costs.

If any Texas children deserve “choice” today, it’s a great many of the nearly 250,000 lost in the margins between 8.5 and 13 percent, stuck in the soft bigotry of standardized expectations without suitable provisions of support.

SPARE ME THE ABSURDITY. There are plenty of children to be helped within existing government bureaucracies without sanctimoniously creating new ones to oversee vouchers (including 5.5 million students in a Byzantine public school finance system).

And until the most powerful office in Texas politics moves to bring competent government to the side of the least of these, you’ll forgive me for believing “school choice” is much more about entitlement expansion for families living within gated communities than it is unlocking poor children from failing schools.

Jay Leeson is, among other things, a writer and talk radio host in Lubbock and editor of OtherSideofTexas.com. Contact him on Twitter @jayleeson or by email.

This column originally appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

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