House public ed chair says he’ll consider vouchers

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he’d be willing to entertain a voucher-type proposal this session although he said there still is much hesitancy in the lower chamber about giving state money to public school students to attend private or parochial schools.

Aycock, who remains a voucher skeptic, told Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith during a public interview on Thursday that “there’s pretty serious concern” among the House members he’s talked to about how the state would hold those institutions accountable and oversee their curricula. House lawmakers rejected voucher-type proposals during the 2013 legislative session with the overwhelming passage of a budget amendment that banned the use of public dollars in private schools.

Aycock told the American-Statesman earlier this month that if he “could be assured somehow that there was good quality control that followed the state money, then I’d certainly be willing to talk about it.”

On Thursday, he said a provision of a voucher-type bill filed by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, that would require private schools receiving public money be accredited by the state gives him “a little more comfort.”

“Accreditation certainly moves me to, at least, a discussion point, let’s put it that way,” Aycock said.

“So you’re going to entertain this?” Smith asked.

“Sure,” Aycock replied, going onto confirm that he doesn’t know whether that would change his vote.

If reappointed chair of the House Public Education Committee this session, Aycock will control what bills are heard and voted on and, if passed, make it to the floor of the House.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will preside over the Senate, has again made school choice a top priority for the legislative session and told the American-Statesman he supports Campbell’s bill. The two legislators have painted the issue as a moral one, saying parents should not be forced to send their students to failing schools.

During Thursday’s interview, Aycock said he thinks Texas schools are “doing pretty well with considerably less money than other states spend,” although he said districts have “never recovered” from the more than $5 billion lawmakers cut from their funding in 2011.

He also raised some eyebrows when he said he thinks the state’s “transportation needs are much more emergency-type needs than our education needs right now.”

Asked about whether giving schools more money would improve performance, Aycock said “I think there would be some improvement, yes.”

However, Aycock said he doubted the Legislature would make any “structural” changes to the school finance system this session as it waits to see if the Texas Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling that deemed it unconstitutional. Aycock predicted the high court would agree with the state on some issues raised in the lawsuit and the more than 600 plaintiff school districts on others. Those districts sued after the 2011 cuts.

A ruling is not expected before the end of 140-day legislative session on June 1.

In the meantime, Aycock has proposed a sweeping bill to overhaul the school finance system. His House Bill 654 would combine the tax bases of wealthier districts with poorer ones, fusing the state’s more than 1,000 regular school districts into 30 new units for “tax purposes only” and require that per-student funding is within $300 of the statewide average.

On Thursday he reiterated that the bill is meant to be a conservation starter rather than must-pass legislation.

“What I’m hoping is this will put … thinking caps on,” he said.

Other nuggets from Aycock’s Thursday interview:

  • On grading schools: He said he would vote “yes” on a school ranking system that grades schools A-F, although he said he would not lead the charge on it this session.
  • On testing: He predicted “a vigorous discussion” about testing for grades 3-8 this session rather than high school. He also said he would want to “lessen” high stakes testing, i.e. exams that decide whether a student can advance to the next grade level, but not do away with it entirely.
  • On new charter schools: He said they seem to be doing a good job but that he is alarmed at how many state resources it is taking to oversee them.
  • On high dropout rates: He said lawmakers need to consider specifically targeting certain high-risk students, like Hispanic males who he said are more inclined to drop out to work instead.
  • On the Texas Education Agency: Asked about whether the TEA is doing a good job, he said they need more money to do the kind of job he wants them to do.
  • On pre-kindergarten: Aycock noted it is a high priority of Gov. Greg Abbott and said that the Legislature “in general has reflected that priority and wants to do an early child pre-K bill”

Author: Kiah Collier

Kiah Collier covers the Texas Legislature for the Austin American-Statesman with a focus on the state budget, public education and employee pensions.

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