Texas Senate District 19 candidates (from left) Freddy Ramirez, Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio), and Xochil Pena-Rodriguez answer questions at the "For the Future Candidates" forum held at Texas A&M-San Antonio. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

Three of the four Democratic candidates campaigning for a chance at the Republican-held seat in the Texas Senate agree on a number of public education issues, especially when it comes to charter schools.

Calling for charter schools to be held accountable for the state funds they receive was a common refrain among challengers Freddy Ramirez, Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio), and Xochil Peña-Rodriguez as they answered a series of questions Thursday during a Senate District 19 candidate forum ahead of the March 3 Democratic primary.

The event was sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas, a public policy organization that supports public education in the state, for an audience of educators and others at Texas A&M-San Antonio and a group watching a live video feed in the rural town of Ozona in West Texas.

Republican Sen. Pete Flores, the incumbent whose district includes all of Harlandale and most of South San independent school districts, was invited to participate in the forum but did not attend. Belinda Shvetz, also on the forum agenda but not on stage Thursday, was removed from the ballot after a judge ruled in favor of Peña-Rodriguez’s complaint that Shvetz does not live in the district.

Each candidate was asked four prepared questions, such as how to sustain House Bill 3 and their opinion of the A-F Accountability Rating System, and given two minutes to respond. Audience questions followed and touched on Texas Education Agency (TEA) interventions, education funding for disabled students, and, from the Ozona viewers, funding to increase opportunities for students in rural schools.

Throughout the forum, the candidates took issue with the use of public funds for vouchers so students can attend the school of their choice and for charter schools.  

Ramirez said vouchers aren’t going to the working-class people they were intended for because transportation to schools outside the community where they live is an issue.

Instead, he said, the state should take the money spent on vouchers and give it directly to the schools. “Now we’re giving money directly to the source,” he said. “We’re [putting] money into the hands of the districts and the principal and saying, ‘Use this money wisely.’”

Gutierrez acknowledged that while he chooses to send his own daughters to a private Episcopal school, he doesn’t expect the state to pay for his choice. The voucher program, he said, has “torn away” at the public school system.

“It’s astounding to me that we have two parallel systems of education, public and charter,” he said. “At the end of the day, our charter schools are not subject to the same amount of accountability. Many of them don’t have transportation programs, many of them don’t have food programs.”

Peña-Rodriguez agreed with Gutierrez on that point and added, “If [charter schools] are taking students out, all the money needs to follow the students. Because when you’re in a private school, it’s very easy to limit who can get in by testing requirements.”

An audience member also asked the candidates what role the state should play in intervening and replacing school boards and superintendents of failing schools, “considering that State District 19 school districts have a history of state intervention.”

Ramirez said he agrees with intervention when it’s “in the best interest of the children,” but Peña-Rodriguez said she’s not sure the TEA is always working in the best interest of students.

“Despite the stories that you’re hearing about some of the shenanigans that may or may not be going on in the school board, it does seem to me that they seem to be scrutinizing certain districts a little more heavily than others, and they certainly are not scrutinizing charters to the same degree,” she said.

Gutierrez said the TEA has a role to play and it works.

“But what you do want to make sure is that charter schools work by the same rules,” Gutierrez said. “I sometimes feel, and maybe it’s a conspiracy theory, that charter schools don’t get the same kind of review.”

Peña-Rodriguez, in her closing remarks at the forum, said that as an attorney, she wants to look at legislation and tax exemptions because “there’s a lot Texas can be doing to make sure every child in the state has the opportunity to fulfill their God-given promise and potential.”

Ramirez said that as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, his focus is on the impact of education on keeping people out of the criminal justice system. “We need to make sure education is good for everyone, regardless of your zip code,” he said.

Gutierrez underscored the need not just for what he called platitudes, but for actual funding for the public school system in Texas, and for that, he has a plan.

“We all want more money for education … This isn’t theory for me – I have applied the things that we’re talking about today. I have a plan for the future,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but at the end of the day, [legalizing cannabis] will generate $3.6 billion for the state of Texas.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.