Two men are single-handedly blocking school choice in Texas, and propping up a faltering public monopoly.
House Speaker Joe Straus and H-E-B grocery magnate Charles Butt wield political and financial clout over the state Legislature to ensure the status-quo in education.
“Straus and Butt use a broad brush to keep choice at bay, calling everything a voucher or privatization,” says Matthew Prewett, founder of Texas Parents Union.
On cue, a Butt-sponsored political group, Texas Parent PAC, declared, “We do not support candidates who advocate for privatization of public schools.”
Texas Parent PAC and two other Butt-backed organizations — Raise Your Hand Texas and Save Texas Schools — are crucial weapons in the rearguard fight against school choice. The three groups endorse and fund candidates willing to restrict parental rights.
Straus, a San Antonio Republican who depends on union-friendly Democrats to hold onto his job as House speaker, received $168,000 in campaign contributions from Butt.
Butt also bankrolled Parent PAC with $1,498,000.
Straus, in turn, packs the House Education Committee with anti-choice lawmakers.
Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC and voted against school vouchers in 2013.
Vice Chair Alma Allen, D-Houston, also voted against vouchers. So did committee members Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont; Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston; Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown; Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint; Dan Huberty, R-Houston; and Ken King, R-Canadian.
Farney, Huberty and King also received contributions from Parent PAC.
In a statement, Straus calls education a top priority:
“In the Texas House, we have worked to improve education by strengthening career and college readiness, reducing excessive testing, and expanding school choice by creating more charter schools. We have put additional resources into our classrooms.”
Straus spokesman Jason Embry added that House members supported school choice by lifting the cap on “high-quality charter schools.”
“As the House begins to look toward the next legislative session, Speaker Straus and his colleagues will continue to prioritize improving education and will consider a wide range of reforms that aim to empower parents, strengthen local control and support quality instruction in the classroom,” Embry said.
“That’s spin,” Prewett responds. “It pleases charters (publicly funded, independently operated campuses) and school districts, but not necessarily parents. Straus is simply reiterating Butt’s position.”
Arif Panju, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, told Watchdog.org: “Speaker Straus is no friend of meaningful school choice. He and his leadership team killed a landmark school choice bill, SB4, that the Senate passed overwhelmingly this past session.”
The Senate measure, which would have created a statewide scholarship program for low-income and at-risk children, never got a hearing in the House Education Committee.
Butt, 77, did not respond to Watchdog’s request for comment, but Dick Komer, a policy analyst at the Institute for Justice, questioned why a billionaire businessman would oppose competition.
“If H-E-B achieved a monopoly in the grocery business, would Mr. Butt actually believe that quality would improve and prices would go down?” Komer asked.
“Education functions like a public monopoly, which is especially inefficient and especially high cost,” he asserted.
While Straus and Butt plump for more evermore school funding, reformers say school choice can put downward pressure on the ballooning costs of K-12 education.
“It isn’t about spending more money — it’s about giving control to parents,” said Lindsey Burke, a Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Contrasting with the rosy pictures painted by Strauss and Butt, Texas schools are lagging. Scores on SAT exams and the National Assessment for Educational Progress are flat or falling, even as Straus complains about “excessive testing.”
“They’re pretty weak sauce,” Burke said of the agenda promoted by Straus, Butt and public school employees. “Soon, Texas is going to feel the pressure.”
In 2011, Arizona became the first state to offer education savings accounts, issuing debit cards to parents to shop for their children’s education. Nevada and Florida followed this year.
Meantime, Burke says Texas’ charter law gets only a “C” grade nationally and the state’s school-rating system doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“It doesn’t do any good to know your school is failing if you don’t have a choice,” she said.
Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected].