A number of high profile bills hang in the balance as the Texas legislative session sprints toward the finish line. Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, who covers the Capitol for the Texas Newsroom, said Senate Bill 8 is among them.
Senate Bill 8 would allocate public funding to send kids to private schools, and is a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
“The Senate passed their version of this voucher-like program weeks ago, but now the House is taking it up and it’s actually providing what they call a committee substitute or an amendment to the bill,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “The new version in the House is a bit narrower than the original one. It has more restrictions on who can qualify for this voucher-like program.”
Under the House version, Martínez-Beltrán said, only low income students and students with disabilities would be eligible — as well as students who attend schools that have a recent D or F rating from the state.
COUNTDOWN CLOCK: Track all the deadlines in these final weeks of the 88th Legislature
The other big thing is that the Senate version would give students who qualify $8,000 to cover private school tuition fees and other education-related expenses. But under the House version, that amount would vary. Students would be able to get anything from $7,500 to over $10,000.
Another big difference between the two bills is the House version would no longer fund school districts in rural communities that lose students to the voucher program — a provision the Senate included to try and sway rural Republicans who have historically voted down voucher programs in Texas.
With the two versions of the bills looking so different, Martínez-Beltrán said it is very likely this bill will require a special session to work out the compromises between the two chambers.
“Gov. Abbott last night released a statement saying that the House version of the voucher bill is a no-go for him. He even said that he would veto this version of the bill if it were to hit his desk,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “And he also said that if the Legislature doesn’t pass a version with an expanded scope, he will be calling for special sessions – and that is “sessions” with an ‘S’ at the end. So it could be multiple of them.”
Martínez-Beltrán said despite efforts to appease them, Republican lawmakers representing rural areas have not warmed much to this bill.
“We do know that the House has already passed a provision on their budget that prohibits the use of public funds for school voucher programs, and a lot of Republicans voted for it. So I think this new version is trying to appease their concerns,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “I do think, though, that it’s not necessarily going to work that way. We already know that the House was trying to rush a hearing and some Republicans voted to block that meeting from taking place because they wanted more time to read this new House substitute.”
The Senate version of the bill also includes provisions related to the way gender and sexuality and race is taught in schools. The House version dropped that provision, Martínez-Beltrán said.
The House is discussing its version of the bill in committee Monday, including testimony from invited guests. Martínez-Beltrán said most if not all of the guests are in favor of the bill.
“But, you know, I always tell people, ‘hey, if you have concerns or if you support a bill, email your representative – try to call their office,’” he said. “I think that that tends to be helpful. You know, many, many times you won’t be able to kill the bill or push the bill, but you could potentially create some changes on the bill that would make you more satisfied. So call them. That’s what they’re there for.”