“Our communities are built around our public schools,” Texas Senator Bryan Hughes said.
The senator, who is a member of the Texas Senate’s education committee, committed to preserving public schools in the state and especially in the 16 counties he represents in District 1.
During the week of Jan. 22-28, the state joined the country in celebrating National School Choice Week.
To Hughes, the idea of school choice exists to give parents a greater role in choosing the school that best fits their students’ educational needs, which he said, is hard to argue against.
In the midst of School Choice Week, the Texas Senate received a bill, which in its raw, introduced form, gives low-income families and special needs students more school options.
“As a practical matter, if a parent decides that a public school is not the best fit for their child, and they choose to go to a private school or a different setting, under this bill part of the state funding allocated to that child would go with the child… But a portion of the state funding for that child would stay in the public school, even though the child is leaving,” Hughes explained.
The bill only applies to students who choose to leave their assigned school district, based on school district zones, to attend a private school or homeschooling.
However, Lindale ISD Superintendent Stan Surratt isn’t a fan.
“I still can’t understand how so many conservative legislators can support this type of thing, which is the most liberal idea I’ve ever heard of,’’ he said. “They are talking about taking taxpayer money and giving it away with no accountability.''
Furthermore, Surratt believes, the entire plan is purely political in nature.
“This isn’t for inner city kids or poor children and families,’’ he said. “The real intent is to help wealthy people pay for their private schools and it’s about certain politicians keeping their campaign promises to the wealthy people (who are) making big donations.’’
Hughes said he’s not trying to sink the public school system.
“It’s one of the safeguards we’ve asked for in the bill to make sure public schools aren’t harmed in the process,” Hughes, who represents District 1 of Northeast Texas, said. “If parents feel like their child is going to do better in a different setting, we want to honor that. At the same time, we want to sustain and preserve our strong public school system.”
The bill will not impact students who transfer from one public school district to another. While public school choice allows students to transfer and attend classes in a nearby public school district, the school choice bill only applies to students who are leaving the public school system completely.
Hughes said he is a product of the Texas public school system and acknowledged most students in the state will attend their local public schools.
“No matter what we do with school choice, we have to make sure that we’re still providing for the public school system,” he said.
School voucher systems have become a topic of conversations in both education and political circles. The school choice bill is not a voucher bill, Hughes confirmed.
“We’re going to give parents’ choices while at the same time, we preserve and we strengthen our public school system,” Hughes said. “These are not competing ends.”
Surratt said more than 40 school districts across East Texas have made their feelings known to lawmakers by passing resolutions which support an increase in funding, oppose vouchers and the A-F grading system for districts.
In addition, he said there is nothing to support the notion that any type of voucher plan would be beneficial.
“There simply is no data to indicate (voucher plans) would be an effective tactic,’’ he said. “It’s just like there’s no data to support the idea that charter schools perform at the level of public schools.’’
The LISD chief feels some state lawmakers are trying to tip the scales in favor of the private schools.
“It’s just a shame these Republican leaders don’t show the same enthusiasm for public schools as they do the private schools,’’ he said. “We need true statesmen in Austin. They should be ashamed to be called conservatives.’’
Texas is not leading on giving parents more freedom to choose the school best for their students, he said, noting 28 states and the District of Columbia all have a form of a school choice program in place.
Hughes called the bill the state’s cautious approach to school choice and emphasized he will scrutinize the bill and each amendment added to it to ensure it is beneficial to the state’s public school system and its students.
“The point is, whether it’s school choice or any education bill, I’m going to be looking to make sure it’s good for the students that I represent,” he said. “Most of us are going to be in public school, and that’s good. A strong public education system is good for all of us.”
He repeated he will not support legislation that is detrimental to public school districts or students attending public schools.
“This won’t be the final version,” Hughes said, noting there are still amendments that will be added to the bill.
Even with talk of vouchers entering the national conscience, Hughes said, he does not see a place for the system in the future of Texas education because of the intrinsic connection public schools have with their communities.
“It’s what our communities are built around,” he said. A common sight in more rural communities, such as those in East Texas, is a school sign or poster hanging in the front window of convenience stores and local businesses. This is not as often the case in the larger cities of Houston or Dallas.
In addition to education issues, Hughes said, talking to the Lindale News & Times’ sister publication, the Kilgore News Herald, on his way to Tyler from Austin, he was in a hearing from 8:30 Thursday morning until 12:50 Friday morning.
The 16-hour hearing involved the State Affairs committee, of which Hughes serves as vice chair, to discuss sanctuary cities.
“It was the first of many marathon hearings on the sanctuary cities bill,” he said.
Although the bill has a more direct impact on cities closer to the state’s border with Mexico, Hughes said, there are some cities that are releasing illegal immigrants who are wanted for serious crimes and not turning them over to federal agents.
“Our cities and counties aren’t doing that, but when they’re released, they don’t stay in those cities where they’re released,” he said.
The bills related to sanctuary cities and school choice are just two of many that have already been filed since the 85th Texas Legislature session began Jan. 10.
“The session is already going and moving fast,” he said.