A bill allowing public tax dollars to be spent on private school tuition, also known as vouchers, passed through the Texas Senate last month. The chairman of the Texas House Public Education Committee, however, has said the bill has “no path forward.”
So private school vouchers are dead in the water this session, but what about the next one in 2019? Or 2021? Or what if new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a champion of “private school choice,” finds a way to offer vouchers through the federal government?
And how did these issues find their way into an East Dallas election for the DISD school board, which has no authority on the ways that state and federal dollars are spent on schools?
The answer is that the challenger in the DISD District 2 board race, Lori Kirkpatrick, has made vouchers a central issue in her campaign. Kirkpatrick made this explicit in a campaign email she sent earlier this month.
“I will not stand silently as an individual who has many investments in private education is on the board of the second largest public school district in the state of Texas and the 14th in the nation,” she wrote.
Kirkpatrick was referring to incumbent District 2 Trustee Dustin Marshall, claiming in the same email that the $250,000-plus he spent in 2016 included “donors who believe in the privatization of the public school system” and that since the election, Marshall “has confirmed that he is not willing to stand against school vouchers that would take funding from public education.”
Kirkpatrick’s belief is based on a January 2017 DISD board meeting, during which trustees voted on a resolution that denounced, among other things, “any program that diverts public tax dollars to private entities, homeschool students, or parents with little or no academic or financial accountability to the state, taxpayers, or local communities.”
School vouchers, in other words, and in their 7-2 vote, DISD trustees resolved to stand against school vouchers. The two holdouts were Trustee Edwin Flores, who represents parts of Preston Hollow and Northwest Dallas, and Marshall.
Marshall expressed before the vote that his opposition to the resolution centered on the state’s pilot A-F school grading system. “We believe in strong accountability, but see no evidence that the A-F grading system will actually improve performance or help students,” the DISD board resolution also stated. Marshall and Flores said they didn’t agree; they wanted to give the state more time to tweak the new way it is evaluating schools.
Kirkpatrick saw it as a link between Marshall and vouchers, however, and after seeing her email stating as much, Marshall quickly fought back in a Facebook post.
He also spoke against vouchers at the next day’s board briefing. Dallas Kids First, a PAC supporting education reform candidates and initiatives, seized upon this speech in their defense of Marshall, whom they had endorsed.
“It’s upsetting that this campaign has not been about actual issues,” Marshall told us in a subsequent interview. “To debate with me on an issue we agree about is disingenuous.”
These responses have not placated Kirkpatrick, however. She stood her ground in a response to Marshall’s rebuttals in this blog post, to which she pointed us when we asked for the basis of her claims.
“Board President Dan Micciche said that the A-F grading system was being used as a pre-text for the voucher system and was a distraction from the funding issue that our public education system faces,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “Yet … with ample opportunity to discuss this issue, Mr. Marshall grew silent.”
“During this election when voters have asked, Mr. Marshall has stated that he is against school vouchers,” she continues, “but when he had to speak on behalf of the families and children of DISD on January 26 as their trustee, he was not able to do so.”
And then, Kirkpatrick writes this: “I can assume that perhaps Mr. Marshall couldn’t speak out against vouchers because he would directly benefit from them, as he sends his children to private school.”
Kirkpatrick, when she announced her campaign, told us she had decided to run against Marshall because his school-aged children attend private school rather than a DISD public school. Kirkpatrick’s daughter attends Lakewood Elementary. “If you’re not sending your children to your community school and encouraging your neighbors to attend your community school and making your neighborhood school what it could and should be, your level of commitment to DISD is in question, in my mind,” she said.
Kirkpatrick is not unique in this sentiment. When we talk to District 2 voters, those who don’t support Marshall often cite his children’s private school education as the sole reason they won’t vote for him. They say it makes them suspicious of his intentions and commitments.
Marshall’s repeated insistence that he is against school vouchers may therefore be futile. His vote against the board resolution denouncing vouchers, no matter his reasons, may have compounded the problem. It likely cemented the view of voters already opposed to him and cast doubt into the minds of those on the fence.
So a political foe playing up this stance, whether true or false, plays into the fears voters have about what drives Marshall’s decisions about schools. He acknowledges that because he chooses to send his children to private school, he won’t be able to sway some voters. But Marshall doesn’t agree with their logic.
“There’s a whole host of things that qualify someone to be a trustee of Dallas ISD,” he says. “Where their children go to school isn’t one of them.”
Marshall says he wants to focus on “authentic differences, substantive differences,” adding that Kirkpatrick is “focusing on something that is not a difference between us and is being portrayed as if it is.”
The two candidates will have the opportunity to differentiate themselves tonight, Tuesday, April 25, 5:30-6:15 during a District 2 board candidate forum at Mata Montessori School, 7420 La Vista Drive. (Full disclosure: I’m a Mata parent and am moderating the forum.)
The election is May 6. Early voting began yesterday, April 24, and continues through May 2.
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