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School groups wary of vouchers

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Robert T. Garrett, The Dallas Morning News

Education choice for disabled students in special session revival

AUSTIN -- Many school groups reacted warily Wednesday to Gov. Greg Abbott's revival of private-school vouchers and a ban on union payroll deductions for teachers as agenda items for next month's special legislative session.

During the regular session, conservative activists were frustrated by House lawmakers' refusal to pass either voucher-type bills on "school choice" or a prohibition on union and association dues being taken out of most public employees' paychecks.

On Tuesday, though, Abbott called an overtime session that will begin July 18 -- and put those and other controversial education issues back in play.

The Republican governor said he'd add to the call a limited version of education savings accounts. It would give parents of disabled students state dollars, which they could spend on private-school tuition, tutoring, online courses and other expenses.

Abbott cited a bill by Carrollton GOP Rep. Ron Simmons that would create the savings accounts for families with children who have special needs. It died in the House.

"I want to give this bill another shot," he said.

A battle renewed

Voucher opponent Charles Luke, though, noted that the 150-member House voted twice in the regular session to oppose any use of state money for school vouchers or similar programs. Both times, the ratio was better than 2-to-1, said Luke, coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools, an anti-voucher group.

"The House of Representatives is probably the most representative of the folks in Texas in our Legislature, and it has repudiated vouchers over and over," said Luke, a former pastor and school superintendent. He and his wife have a 13-year-old son who has spina bifida and is getting good instruction from Weatherford public schools, he said.

"To have the governor trot this old tired horse out is ridiculous," he said.

Education savings accounts supporter Randan Steinhauser, however, insisted Abbott "is in tune with Texas parents who want a school choice program."

Such parents can be "in dire need of educational options for their children," said Steinhauser, state adviser to EdChoice, formerly the Milton Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

"The majority of states have some form of a school choice program, and it's clearly time for parents in Texas to have educational options -- especially parents of special-needs students," she said.

Abbott said he'd tack 19 items to the special session's agenda as soon as the Senate nears passage of a bill to preserve the Texas Medical Board and four agencies that license mental health therapists. The so-called sunset bill to extend the five regulatory boards' existence fell victim last month to infighting between the House and Senate.

Among several items affecting education were what Abbott called "prohibition of taxpayer dollars to collect union dues," $1,000 teacher pay raises and "administrative flexibility in teacher hiring and retention practices."

Abbott said he expects the teacher pay raise to be funded through "smarter" spending decisions by school districts, not additional state aid. He also appeared to cast greater flexibility to hire and fire teachers as another way to fund his proposed salary increases.

Dax Gonzalez, assistant director of government relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said requiring raises may further vex some already-strapped districts.

"With nearly 350,000 teachers in public schools across the state, a pay raise of that magnitude would cost schools about $700 million before consideration of benefits, associated staff salaries, and other costs -- making this a potential billion-dollar mandate," he wrote to his members late Tuesday.

Payroll deductions

In late March, the Senate passed a "paycheck protection" bill by Houston GOP Sen. Joan Huffman. The bill would bar deductions of dues for state, local and school district employees' professional associations as well as unions -- though not for police, firefighters and paramedics.

However, it never received a hearing in the House. In 2015, a similar bill got a hearing but also died in the House. Unions and professional groups call it "paycheck deception."

"This bill continues to be marketed under false pretenses and is nothing more than a slap in the face to teachers," said Association of Texas Professional Educators lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Bill Peacock, vice president of the free market-oriented Texas Public Policy Foundation, though, called Huffman's bill "a step in the right direction."

"With the ease of setting up automatic withdrawals from bank accounts, the labor movement will not lose much revenue from this," he said.

Peacock said, however, that as a general rule, "the government shouldn't be serving as a dues collector or a collector of charitable donations or anything else for any private organization."