You are here

Dan Patrick’s other ideas: are they worth serious discussion?

March 11, 2013

By Harold Cook

When Ann Richards was governor, she had a letter written by some long-past governor of the early 1900s hanging on her office wall, in which this forgotten (by me) governor was lamenting issues surrounding public education. It was amazing in that the issues about which this governor wrote were the exact same issues Governor Richards was grappling with generations later, which are also the same issues legislators and the courts are debating today.

Legislatures never solve public education issues; it’s a continuing process, not a single event. But given the stakes – the next generation – legislatures never stop plugging away at it, nor should they.

It’s easy for progressives to get disgusted with conservatives’ particular obsessions on education issues, mainly because of the laser focus on school vouchers a few of them maintain – which newly-minted Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick just announced is “the old word,” and has rebranded the “business tax credit.” Way to go, Senator – when the policy is crap and you’ve lost your public support, don’t give up – just re-name the crap.

Vouchers have always been a bad idea, and no matter what they’re called in the future, they’ll continue to be a bad idea. They’re not even a conservative idea. If you give away taxpayer money to private schools with little or no accountability, that’s not conservative. And if you do so with effective accountability measures, the private schools don’t want the money. All this, against the backdrop of continuing to starve neighborhood public schools of even more of the funding the people in charge have already cut. No thanks. It’s no wonder that vouchers already appears to be on life support this session.

But I’ve been in the thick of what seems like a thousand legislative skirmishes over public education, and I’ve seen a lot of interesting ideas thrown under the bus, mainly because of progressives’ distrust of the conservatives proposing them. It’s understandable; when you have a big fat bill caption on a public education bill, myriad harmful floor amendments, including vouchers, can conceivably be slipped in, out of reach of Democratic efforts to stop them. Many a good, or innocuous, piece of school legislation has been killed or slowed, for fear of what the legislation doesn’t yet do.

But unless you’re ready to claim that you don’t think there’s any room for improvement in public education, sooner or later, Democrats in the legislative minority, and Republicans in the legislative leadership, are going to have to find a constructive way to work together and pass meaningful reforms that move the ball forward, while agreeing to take divisive issues such as vouchers off the table, at least for the purposes of discussing those other ideas.

Charter schools are a good example. I’m the odd Democrat who never really had a problem with the concept of charter schools, and I still don’t. There are some great ones out there doing fantastic work, among a population of students which was already in large part lost to the traditional public school system. There are also some terrible charter operations out there, bilking taxpayers and robbing kids of their future. I’ve long thought that the legislature’s inability to decisively deal with the latter, or foster more of the former, has a lot to do with a lack of trust between legislators and among stakeholders.

I bet most of those who oppose charter schools wouldn’t bother with it, if they knew that the state would shut a bad one down in a heartbeat. But currently, that doesn’t happen. And now, charter school advocates want to raise or remove the cap on the number of allowable schools. My first reaction when I heard about it was to roll my eyes and think, “they wouldn’t need to raise the cap if they’d shut down the bad actors in the system,” but I don’t think it’s true – there would still be more legitimate demand for additional charter schools than the current cap would allow.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable, however, to have a good-faith discussion resulting in legislation that really did quickly shut down crappy charter schools? And if the trade-off you had to make to get there would be to raise or lift the cap, wouldn’t that be worth it, or at least be worth the discussion?

If you’re one of those who is just by-God opposed to charter schools, you’ve already lost the war – they’re here to stay. Even President Obama supports charter schools. And once you’ve internalized that fact, it’s easier to concede that if they’re going to be around anyway, if you care about the students in these non-traditional public schools, you’d want to make sure the good ones get better and the bad ones get gone.

I’m pretty tired of progressive legislative strategies on public education often consisting of little more than seeking assurances from Republican bill sponsors that if Democrats allow a piece of legislation to move forward, the Republican will promise on a stack of guns and bibles that they won’t accept a voucher amendment later in the process. The strategy has worked well in keeping vouchers off the books, but there has to more to the public education debate; there has to be a better way to debate other ideas that might work well.

Legislators who are public education advocates should sit down with Chairman Patrick – like it or not, it’s his legislation, and his Senate committee. Figure out how to make a charter school bill work. Then figure out what else is on Patrick’s mind, and see what else might work. Because, clown-car hearings about sex ed and vouchers aside, just because a piece of legislation is carried by a voucher advocate, doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea.