August 6, 2008

State Teacher Group Sues Texas Education Agency Over Dropout-Prevention Vouchers Given to Nonprofits

By Terrence Stutz, The Dallas Morning News

Aug. 6--AUSTIN -- A leading state teacher group filed suit Tuesday against the Texas Education Agency, seeking to block the distribution of state funds to three nonprofit corporations selected to run student dropout programs.

In the lawsuit, the Texas State Teachers Association accused the TEA and state Education Commissioner Robert Scott of using the dropout recovery grants to set up a limited private school voucher program.

"They couldn't push vouchers through the Legislature in an above-board way, so they went through the back door to divert public dollars to private school programs," said TSTA President Rita C. Haecker. She noted that lawmakers have repeatedly rejected private school vouchers in Texas.

"Given the finite pool of money available for dropout recovery and the pressing needs in our state, diverting public money to private educational programs clearly shortchanges public schools that need it and could effectively use it," she said.

Twenty-two school districts that applied were turned down.

The $6 million state program is aimed at helping dropouts complete their coursework so they can earn high school diplomas.

Mr. Scott questioned the teacher group's lawsuit, saying the dropout problem requires action on several fronts.

"This state has a serious dropout problem," he said. "We need to be marshalling all our forces to respond to it. It's incredible that TSTA thinks that nonprofit organizations don't have a role to play in reducing the dropout problem and increasing the graduation rate."

He also said the group is wrong if it thinks this is the first time state grants have been awarded to nonprofits.

The three nonprofits that were awarded grants were Christian Fellowship of San Antonio; San Marcos-based Community Action Inc. of Hays, Caldwell and Blanco Counties, and Healy Murphy Center Inc. of San Antonio.

Other grants went to 14 school districts -- including Arlington, Birdville, Dallas, Grand Prairie and Lewisville -- as well as two charter schools, the Harris County education department and two community college districts, including Dallas'.

Some lawmakers and several education groups have complained about Mr. Scott's decision to allow nonprofits to apply for the grants, noting that the 2007 law creating the dropout recovery program did not mention private schools as potential applicants.

Ms. Haecker said the program will become a "stealth voucher plan" if the state is allowed to award grants to the three nonprofits.

In its lawsuit, filed in state court in Austin, the teacher group said state education laws do not authorize the TEA to award public money to private, nonprofit organizations for educational programs that compete with public school programs serving students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.


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