AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened to veto what he considers weak school choice legislation — or even pull the trigger on a special session — if he doesn’t see a strong voucher bill closer to what the Texas Senate has proposed passing both chambers before the end of this session.
The Senate passed its version of school choice, in the form of education savings accounts, in early April, crushing all amendments offered by Democrats. The House countered with a budget vote that included an amendment that no public money be diverted to school choice legislation.
The budget has yet to be reconciled between the two chambers. And the House, with its freshman Public Education Chair Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Salado, has struggled to find its own version of school choice legislation with enough concessions to win the requisite number of Republican votes.
The current substitute bill in the House, known as CSSB 8, cut the voucher option from all students to special education students and those students in schools rated as failing by the state. The state already offers transfer options for students at failing schools to transfer to other public schools. The House also sweetened the pot on CSSB 8, carried by seasoned lawmaker Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, by offering to replace the state’s standardized test.
CSSB 8 could have been voted out of committee in a rushed late-night committee hearing last week, but the majority in the House denied that additional meeting for House Public Education. Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd, spoke for many lawmakers caught in the middle of the fight when he said the new 80-page substitute should not be negotiated and passed without public input.
“This is not the right way to do this, and we are better than this in this committee,” Bailes said on the House floor on Wednesday night. “Our kids matter in the state of Texas, and they are better than backroom shady dealings, which is what this is right here.”
Bailes’ comments drew audible hoots and hisses from his colleagues. Ultimately, Buckley had no choice but to schedule a public hearing on the legislation for Monday morning. On Sunday night, the governor, who has been holding so-called parent empowerment rallies at private and parochial schools around the state for at least a year, made his intentions clear in his own statement.
The Senate’s version of school choice legislation makes the family of every child in Texas eligible for an education savings grant, and the first House version of a school choice bill made about 4 million children eligible, Abbott said. CSSB 8 cut that number to 800,000 students.
“It also provides less funding for special education students than the original House version of the Senate bill and denies school choice to low-income families that may desperately need expanded education options for their children,” Abbott said. “This latest version does little to provide meaningful school choice, and legislators deserve to know that it would be vetoed if it reached my desk.”
The original House version of the Senate bill provides a more meaningful starting point to begin House-Senate negotiations, Abbott said. He also went on to say the number of House members supporting school choice continues to grow.
Then Abbott added an ambiguous quote to his statement about CSSB 8’s intention to replace the state’s STAAR test — in CSSB 8, STAAR would be ditched for a new test, known as the TSIA — without affirming his support for the state’s current assessment system.
“The realization that the STAAR will be eliminated if school choice is enacted is attracting even more legislators,” Abbott said. “No doubt other modifications can be made to the original House version of the Senate bill to attract even more legislators, as well as to bridge the divide with the Senate.”
Those modifications, it would be presumed, would be ideas to win votes other than replacing STAAR. Abbott’s quote doesn’t make that entirely clear, but he does say he and his staff “will continue to work around the clock with the legislature to reach this goal.”
“However, failure to expand the scope of school choice to something close to the Senate version or the original House version of the Senate bill will necessitate special sessions,” warned Abbott, who called three special sessions after the 87th regular session. “Parents and their children deserve no less.”