Texas Senate passes legislation to create school voucher-like program — again

The proposal is now headed to the Texas House of Representatives, where similar legislation stalled in the last special session. At the same time, House lawmakers are also debating their own voucher proposal.

By Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, The Texas Newsroom | Bill Zeeble, KERA NewsNovember 10, 2023 7:51 am, , ,

From The Texas Newsroom:

The Texas Senate has once again passed legislation that could radically reshape the state’s education system by allowing families to use public funds towards the cost of private education.

The full chamber advanced Senate Bill 1 Thursday afternoon, just hours after approving it in a last-minute committee hearing.

SB 1 would divert public dollars into private schools through the creation of education savings accounts, or ESAs. Gov. Greg Abbott has tasked lawmakers with passing the controversial voucher-like program in the current special session, the state’s fourth round of legislative overtime this year.

Unlike during usual legislative hearings, on Thursday the Senate Committee on Education didn’t meet in a traditional committee setting. Instead, the hearing took place quickly in a small room usually reserved for press conferences.

Because of the last-minute decision to meet, no member of the public was able to register to testify on the bill before the committee.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Republican who authored the bill, told reporters the Senate passed the exact same measure last month during the third special session, but it stalled in the House.

“We’ve had over 30 hours of testimony and hearings, inviting Texans from all over the state,” Creighton said, defending the Senate’s decision to hold the hearing on Thursday. “We decided to make all of the committees today have sort of a concerted effort to have the hearings, get the member input and get back to the Senate floor.”

Under Senate Bill 1, students currently enrolled in public and private school, as well as those enrolling in pre-K or kindergarten for the first time, would qualify to get $8,000 per year to use for education-related costs, including private school tuition, transportation, uniforms, textbooks and tutors.

Homeschooled students would qualify for $1,000 to pay for education-related costs.

Creighton told reporters the Senate has sent other options to the Texas House over the last special session and regular session, but that chamber has rejected them. For that reason, Creighton said Senate Republicans decided to push forward the same legislation they agreed on last month.

School vouchers have been a priority for Abbott since the Texas Legislature convened in January, but it has been an uphill battle.

Most — if not all — Democrats have vowed to oppose the legislation, and rural Republican lawmakers have historically not supported any measures that would divert funds from the state’s public school system.

Now that the Senate has once again given final approval to their bill, it heads to the Texas House, where it could hit another dead end.

Texas House considers its own voucher-like proposal

At the same time on Thursday, the Texas House was also busy on its own legislation to create education savings accounts. In a marathon hearing that lasted more than 12 hours, lawmakers heard public testimony on House Bill 1. The legislation, from Republican Rep. Brad Buckley, would create ESAs of $10,500 per year for qualifying students to spend on private school tuition and other education expenses.

In addition to creating ESAs worth $2,500 more annually than the Senate’s proposal, Buckley’s HB 1 includes several additional items, including one-time teacher pay raises, increased per-student allotments for independent school districts, rules for virtual education and funding for pre-K students.

Buckley, who chairs the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment, opened Thursday’s hearing by dismissing common criticisms of his bill and voucher-like programs in general. He said the issue was often presented as “either you’re for public education or parental choice.”

“I reject that premise,” Buckley said. “And HB 1 delivers historic funding and accountability and assessment reform for our public schools, while also creating education savings accounts that prioritize students with learning challenges and families most in need of education options.”

Early testimony came from groups opposed to HB 1, including the trio of Benny Soileau with the Texas Association Of Midsize Schools, H.D. Chambers with Texas School Alliance, and Randy Willis with the Texas Association of Rural Schools.

They said the Legislature underfunds Texas’ public schools, adding the state ranks poorly in per student funding compared nationally. Before funding private schools, they wanted adequate funding for public schools.

Far West Texas Rep. Ken King said HB 1 attempts to meet the needs of parents desiring ESAs and school districts desiring more money. King wondered if the bill had swayed any of the three facing the committee.

“Are you ready to tell the governor, ‘You can’t buy us off, we’re against vouchers, forever, always, no matter how much money you give us to make it look better?’” King asked.

Willis, Soileau and Chambers all said “yes.”

Chambers said the debate over a voucher program had become a political fight he didn’t like and found it offensive.

“Who blinks, right?” Chambers said. “Right now, we’re not blinking.”

Democratic Rep. James Talarico rejects ESAs, worried about the cost and abuse by some who don’t need it. He asked Texas Education Agency officials about financial details of the bill.

“So it is possible,” he asked, “that under this bill, that CEO sending two kids to an elite, four-year private high school would get a little over $80,000 a year. That’s possible?” Talarico asked. “That’s enough for a new Mercedes.”

Former Dallas ISD trustee Migel Solis, representing the Commit Partnership, praised part of HB1 because it would fund pre-k education.

“Given what research shows to be the high return of quality investments on early learning,” Solis said, ”we are greatly encouraged by HB1’s inclusion of several student’s first strategic early childhood education provisions.”

Lawmakers also heard from private and religious schools and homeschool parents who applauded HB 1.

Public testimony on HB 1 is expected to resume again on Friday morning.

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