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School Choice Supporters to Gather at Capitol

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by Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune – January 29, 2015

As pressure mounts for Texas lawmakers to pass a private school voucher program, educators, parents, students and other advocates will gather Friday at the Capitol for what’s being billed as the state’s largest-ever school choice rally.

The event is part of National School Choice Week, which has included dozens of events in states across the country. It comes two weeks into a legislative session in which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, has renewed efforts he began as a state senator to create a publicly financed scholarship fund to help low-income parents send their children to private schools.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, the New Braunfels Republican who is carrying the 2015 scholarship bill, is set to speak at the rally, which begins at 10 a.m.  The coalition planning the event includes a number of education and business-oriented advocacy groups, like the Texas Charter Schools Association, the Texas Institute for Education Reform, the Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Business Leadership Council. It also includes organizations with an explicit political bent, like Americans for Prosperity and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Many of the rally’s attendees will be young students — attending as part of their school day.   Four schools in the Austin area will be sending their students to the rally, said Dioceses of Austin spokesman Christian Gonzalez, adding that he expected at least one school from each of the state’s 14 dioceses to participate.   Gonzalez said the Texas Catholic Conference extended invitations to all Catholic schools in the state encouraging them to participate in the rally.

He added that whether to attend was left to school administrators.  Parents at the Cathedral School of Saint Mary in downtown Austin received notice earlier this week that students in fifth through eighth grade would be going to the event, said Patrick Sutton, whose has two children there.  Sutton said when he learned more about the event, he was “pretty perplexed and upset” that students would take part in it as a school activity because of its political overtones.

When he asked for clarification from school administration, Sutton said he was told his fifth-grade student could stay behind while the rest of the class attended.  A call to the school was not returned.   Randan Steinhauser, a spokeswoman for the coalition organizing the event, said it was not being held in support of a specific bill — and that its participants, coming from a variety of backgrounds including charters and traditional public schools, don’t all favor the same policy proposals.  But she added that a so-called opportunity scholarship — along with the expansion of charter schools and increased mobility for students in traditional public schools — would be among the measures many there would support.

In the 2013 legislative session, the Texas House quickly blocked attempts to pass a private school scholarship program when members overwhelmingly passed a budget amendment banning public education money from going to private schools. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has since become a target of various conservative groups that want to see school choice reforms.

Following the rally, Steinhauser said she expected a “very heavy advocacy day at the Capitol,” with various groups of attendees meeting with lawmakers to discuss their agendas for the legislative session.   “I’d say that we are definitely going to make sure we stop by Joe Straus’ office,” she said.  Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Business Leadership Council was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2013. See a full list of Tribune donors and sponsors here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/01/29/school-choice-supporters-gather-capitol/.

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Author: Staff Reporter

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