By Will Weissert
AUSTIN — The head of the Senate Education Committee broke into tears Thursday as he promised to fight for dramatically expanded “school choice” in Texas.
But Sen. Dan Patrick also announced he was softening his high-profile bill to allow an unlimited number of charter schools to operate statewide, instead taking a more gradual, tiered approach to their expansion.
The tea party-backed Republican from Houston became emotional as students told his committee of dropping out of school but then returning thanks to charter schools and other facilities specializing in at-risk youth.
They were supporting a bill by San Antonio Democratic Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, who is seeking to modify how state accountability measures evaluate public schools to more accurately label facilities that specialize in helping students who had previously dropped out.
Van De Putte argues that many such students aren’t currently included in the accountability system, which can hurt the “completion rate” rating their schools receive.
Bertha Vasquez, an 18-year-old former dropout in Austin who returned to school is now set to graduate this year and hopes to become a nurse. She cried as she detailed being raised by a single mother.
“I want to be the reason that she can smile every day, even though I made her go through a lot,” Vasquez said.
Patrick instructed a committee clerk to hand her a box of tissues — then said he needed them back as tears ran down his own face.
“Today has been a tough day because everybody up here (on the committee) wants to support choice and options in schools,” Patrick said, his voice cracking.
“Sometimes the adults get in the way with fighting and politicking in the adult world,” he continued.
Then, directly addressing Vasquez and another student who testified, Terrance Wigfall, Patrick added: “What you have done has probably turned around some people’s thinking.”
“You have inspired me. I am going to fight for you and thousands like you,” he said. “We are not going to let politics steal futures and dreams.”
Patrick calls himself an “education evangelist” and suggested during a recent committee meeting that anyone who opposes expanding charter schools in Texas opposes students and families who weep when they try to attend charter schools but are wait listed because demand outpaces existing supply.
He has pushed for the most-dramatic overhaul of charter schools since Texas began allowing them in 1995. Patrick called the witnesses, “perfect people, at the perfect time, with the perfect stories.”
“We’re going to try to change a lot of things this session,” he said.
Patrick is sponsoring two sweeping “school choice” proposals. One would lift the current cap of 215 licenses Texas issues to operate charter schools and creating a special board to oversee a flood of new charter applications he expects will follow. The other is a voucher plan that would allow businesses to earn tax credits for donations that help poor and at-risk children leave public schools for private or religious ones — diverting public money to private schools.
During the hearing, though, Patrick also modified his charter proposal to call for 10 new charter licenses issued next school year and 20 new ones given out in 2014-2015, as well as 35 in the 2015-2016 academic year and beyond. He said he still supports an unlimited number of new charters, but understands that such a plan could be opposed by some in the Legislature.
Patrick also altered his bill to give the state the authority to issue five new charter licenses for every one that is revoked from an existing school because of poor performance. The Texas Education Agency says authorities only close about three charters in a typical year.
The committee, which could have referred the modified bill to the full Senate, instead left it pending Thursday. It will take it up against next week.
Democratic lawmakers, teachers groups and other educational organizations have strongly opposed vouchers — but tend to be more mixed on charters. Still, opposition has come from both parties in the Texas House, where lawmakers from rural areas too small to support charters are often wary of them.