AUSTIN, Texas — On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced his top priorities for the legislative session. Taking a top spot on the list is empowering parental rights, including school choice. A school choice program would give parents the ability to take tax dollars away from public schools to use for private or charter schools. The program is also referred to as “school vouchers.”
What You Need To Know
- A school choice program would give parents the ability to take tax dollars away from public schools to use for private or charter schools
- Political science professor Mark Jones said that the Senate will need to be strategic with its school choice legislation so it’s not “dead on arrival” when it reaches the House
- Rep. Gina Hinojosa supported her colleague Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, when he called on lawmakers to increase teacher pay by $15,000
- Hinojosa’s bill, HB 31, would make it so that schools get funding based on enrollment, not attendance. That would boost funding to the Texas public school system. She said the idea of enrollment-based funding has bipartisan support and is gaining momentum
But the House public education committee will now be chaired by Killeen-area Rep. Brad Buckley, who voted against vouchers during the last legislative session. House Speaker Dade Phelan hasn’t voiced his opinion on the issue, but Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said his committee assignments reveal where he stands.
“If Dade Phelan had wanted school choice to pass, he would have created an education committee with a very distinct composition, especially in terms of its chair,” Jones said. “He would have placed a chair in that committee who was a strong proponent of school choice.”
Jones added that the Senate will need to be strategic with its school choice legislation so it’s not “dead on arrival” when it reaches the House.
“I think, at the end of the day, the question will be, ‘Is there a type of narrowly tailored school choice legislation, say, focused only on certain low income individuals in certain areas, that could pass muster with a majority on the committee?’ If there is, then we'll have school choice. If there isn't, then we won't,” Jones said.
Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, is one committee member who does support school choice. In a recent letter to the governor, he wrote: “You are right to demand universal parental choice in education, and Texas should be leading… With Texas students falling behind and liberal indoctrination on the rise, parents deserve action now.”
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, is on the committee too. She doesn’t support school vouchers because she thinks Texas schools need more funding, not less.
“As a mother of two children in public schools, I can tell you that our public schools have no more to give,” she said. “My son didn't get a teacher this school year because there was not a teacher willing to take the job at the current rate of pay. And so, as a result, he was put into an already-full class... We lost our school principal because of budget cuts. There are fewer adults on campus currently to do all the things that it takes so that our public schools can survive and thrive.”
Rep. Hinojosa supported her colleague Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, when he called on lawmakers to increase teacher pay by $15,000.
Even though she and others on the House public education committee won’t support it, Rep. Hinojosa said the threat of a school choice program passing is “real” because it has the support of Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick.
“It's going to take a full-court press by all supporters of public schools to vocalize our dissent and our objection to defunding our public schools through a private voucher scheme,” she said.
Rep. Hinojosa’s bill, HB 31, would make it so that schools get funding based on enrollment, not attendance. That’d boost funding to the Texas public school system. She said the idea of enrollment-based funding has bipartisan support and is gaining momentum.
“We shortchange our public schools by taking away money for absences,” she said. “This impacts low-income schools and schools with high percentages of students who have disabilities, who are in special education because of services that they take outside of school. It is a bad policy. When schools are struggling with attendance, they need more resources, not less. We already hold our public schools accountable with a very strict accountability system to ensuring that all children learn. We must fully fund our schools and not try to save money by this formula we have that doesn't allow for full funding of our public schools.”
Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, is also on the committee. He said he opposes a school choice program because there are too many unanswered questions about how it would work.
“I do think our public schools in Texas are one of the most important things we have to deal with in this legislative process, and I won't do anything to weaken that,” he said.
And, he said he won't change his mind until Texas schools are fully funded.
“From a funding standpoint, we have a lot of ground to cover this session," Rep. King said. "And it's not anybody's fault; we did some great things in 2019. It's certainly not Texas’ fault. But the inflationary losses we've seen and the teacher shortage crisis we're facing, and the problems within the public education system just go on and on and on. So unless the legislature is going to continue to make major investments every session, we're always going to be behind.”
If Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick don’t fulfill their promise to Texans that a school choice program will pass in Texas this legislative session, Jones said they’ll blame the failure on House Speaker Dade Phelan.