State senator calls himself 'education evangelist'

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Associated Press

Posted on March 4, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 5 at 4:04 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Dan Patrick was giving a sermon. Or at least it felt like one.

"What we need is urgency now! No excuses!," the leader of the state Legislature's tea party caucus cried, shaking the table in front of him at a Texas Business Leadership Council forum this week. "I am all in, but I can't do it by myself."

The Houston Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Education Committee is on a crusade to reshape Texas classrooms in the name of "school choice," pushing for the state's largest expansion of charter schools and touting an ambitious voucher plan that would allow students to attend private schools with public money. Critics say he's out to funnel public money to private corporations, and even the Republican House speaker says much of his agenda won't make it through the Legislature.

But Patrick isn't shy about blurring the line between preaching and policymaking.

"Someone came up and said, 'This is like a tent-revival meeting,'" Patrick said in an interview as he left the forum. "But you do become a little bit of an education evangelist because you know this works and you know we must do all we can to make sure every student has an opportunity."

The zealous approach comes easily to Patrick, who is also an AM radio talk show host for Houston's KSEV. Others call it grandstanding.

"He's gotten very preachy," said Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. "His words are cheap, but quality schools are very expensive and he wants to take money away from them."

Patrick wants to overhaul high school graduation requirements to better suit students wanting career and technical training, rather than college-readiness. He has also introduced a bill erasing Texas' current cap of 215 licenses to operate charter schools and wants to provide them with public funding for facilities. Public schools would also be required to lease unused buildings to charters.

"There will be some things the other side doesn't support, but if we can get 85, 90 percent of our agenda, that's something," Patrick said.

Patrick recently told members of the public lining up to testify against his legislation that they'd be testifying against 100,000 students and families who weep because they are waitlisted while trying to get into charter schools and away from campuses that struggle with academics. Then, at a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Thursday, Patrick and Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, got testy over how to fund a new board Patrick wants to create to handle a potential flood of new charter school applications.

"We're talking about poor students in failing schools who are desperate for options," Patrick said.

West snapped: "Let's not demagogue this."

The Texas Senate passed bills to expand charter schools in 2009 and 2011, but saw both initiatives fizzle in the House, where they were opposed by Democrats and rural Republicans who often lacked charters in their districts.

An even hotter-button issue, however, is Patrick's promise to offer public funding to parents who can use it to pay for private schools.

Patrick has yet to file a bill, but he and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who controls the flow of legislation in the Texas Senate, said the idea would be to give businesses credits worth up to a quarter of what they pay in state taxes to donate to non-profits offering private-school scholarships to disadvantaged youngsters.

Patrick dismisses "vouchers" as a term from the 1970s and describes what he's championing as "business tax credits." Detractors counter that it's a shell game that can allow executives to write the cost of their kids' private school tuition off their taxes while channeling money out of traditional schools that get paid per pupil.

"You can't slap a new name on bad policy," said Phillip Martin, political director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas.

Patrick is steeled for criticism, however. He told the forum audience: "Governor Bush warned me, 'You've got to have someone willing to take arrows.' Well, I'm taking them."

Patrick was referring to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who addressed the same Business Leadership Council forum and who Patrick then invited in front of his committee to explain how Florida embraced vouchers, charter schools and online learning. Bush has branded public schools "monopolies" controlled by unions more interested in protecting teachers and other adults than students.

House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, says he doesn't see any bill passing the chamber that uses public money to fund private schools. And, as recently as 2007, during Patrick's first year in the Legislature, the House voted by a large margin to ban public money from going to private schools.

Patrick still insists this time will be different.

"This is contagious," he said. "Whenever you can see any person in life lifted up because of educational opportunities it's exciting. And I'm not the only one who thinks so."

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