AUSTIN, Texas — In a last-ditch effort to pass a “school choice” bill this legislative session, Senate Republicans are coupling the contentious voucher-like program with a House bill related to teacher pay.
What You Need To Know
- Senate Republicans are coupling the voucher-like program with a House bill related to teacher pay
- Before Monday morning’s Senate Education Committee hearing, witnesses seemed all in for House Bill 100, until Senate Republicans changed the bill to include an education savings account program
- Republican senators touted how the amended bill brings $9 billion to school districts and will increase the amount schools get per student by $50 dollars
- The education savings account aims to be available to the more than 5 million Texas public school students, with some priority given to those in underperforming campuses
A Senate committee advanced the updated bill in a party line vote Monday, raising questions over whether it will be enough to win over a coalition of rural Republicans and Democrats resistant to proposals that would use taxpayer funds to help families cover the cost of private school tuition.
Before Monday morning’s Senate Education Committee hearing, witnesses seemed all in for House Bill 100, a school funding bill that would boost teacher salaries and balance school budgets. But after a dramatic update, that was no longer the case.
Senate Republicans changed the bill to include an education savings account program.
“The Senate has priorities for public education and for moms and dads across Texas to have the choices that they need for their individual students, education priorities,” Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, told Spectrum News. “At this late stage of session, it’s important for us to be able to include all of these options in one large school finance bill and HB 100 was ideal for that as a vehicle.”
Republican senators on the committee also touted how the amended bill brings $9 billion to school districts and will increase the amount schools get per student by $50. The House originally proposed a $90 increase.
Creighton said he believes the commitments in the bill would be “lifting up our teachers and our retired teachers like never before,” and that $9 billion alone would be “equivalent to the total state budget of 11 states.”
When asked about the concerns about the basic allotment not being enough, Creighton said it was critical that state lawmakers work with the dollars they have.
“Just as we’re funding the border, just as we’re funding property tax relief and reform, just as we’re strengthening our Texas electric grid, just as we’re putting health care initiatives in place with surplus dollars, we’re also funding education opportunities for moms and dads to make decisions for their kids,” he said.
The education savings account aims to be available to the more than 5 million Texas public school students, with some priority given to those in underperforming campuses.
Some advocates for students living with disabilities were worried.
Steven Aleman, senior policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas, testified before the committee and raised concerns about a lack of oversight when it comes to special education services at private schools and felt any voucher-like program unfairly redirects taxpayer dollars away from public education.
“For every child that leaves, we’re drawing away public dollars from the public school, which means they have less resources to serve the increasingly greater needs of the students who remain. We can see that the students are going to be left behind are the high needs students,” said Aleman. “We’ll try to stay vigilant to make sure that public schools live up to their promise to all students, including students with disabilities.”
Senate Democrats who initially felt House Bill 100 was a good bill were also disappointed by the changes. If the amended version does pass the full Senate, they believe it will be met with major resistance from House lawmakers.
“When they added the education savings account that really mired the water. I mean, there’s a lot of us who support helping teacher retention and doing other things,” said Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio. “Half a billion dollars, where that could be going to actually increase the basic allotment to our schools. So that’s why I’m opposed to the bill. And I don’t think it’s going to survive.”
If it does not survive, Gov. Greg Abbott, who campaigned on this issue, has threatened a special session. The House Public Education Committee introduced a version of the bill last week that significantly narrowed which students would be eligible for the program in an attempt to perhaps appease rural lawmakers who oppose private school vouchers. It was not taken up for a vote.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of here. So most students will continue to go to public school, but for the students that need it the most, they’ll have these choices,” said Creighton. “And yes, I’m very committed to being steadfast, no matter how long it takes.”
This issue is among the several this session where Senate and House Republicans disagree. If the House does not accept the major change, lawmakers from both chambers will have to hammer out their differences in closed-door meetings.