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Texas House to vote on school voucher bill with more restrictions than the Senate version

The House Chamber for the Texas House of Representatives is empty.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The Texas House Public Education Committee will hold a hearing Monday on legislation to create education savings accounts. The House blocked the committee chair's attempt to hold a vote on Wednesday.

The Texas House Public Education Committee will hold a hearing on school voucher legislation Monday. The panel is only going to hear invited testimony.

Originally, the committee was planning to vote on Senate Bill 8 without hearing testimony, which concerned public education advocates.

“At the same time this Legislature is hammering on parental empowerment, they are trying to sneak in a massive private school coupon under the noses of the vast majority of parents who love their kids' public school,” Texas American Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo said in an emailed statement.

State Rep. Brad Buckley R-Killeen, who chairs the House Public Education committee, tried to hold a vote Wednesday.

But fellow Republican state Rep. Ernest Bailes, raised concerns about the committee voting on SB 8 without public input. He pointed out that the House's 80-page version of SB 8, known as a committee substitute, was different from the Senate version and deserved to be vetted publicly in a hearing.

"Our kids matter in the state of Texas and they are better than backroom shady dealings, which is what this is right here," Bailes said.

Buckley said he did not think additional testimony was necessary because the original version of SB 8 got a 16-hour hearing in the Senate. He also said his own committee has held hearings on other school voucher bills that are similar to the committee substitute.

The House voted 76-65 to block Buckley's request to have his committee meet Wednesday night and vote on SB 8.

The two Austin Democrats on the House Public Education Committee, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa and state Rep. James Talarico, have both said they plan to vote against SB 8.

"Billionaire mega-donors are trying to destroy Texas public schools with a private voucher scam. They have a simple strategy: First, demonize, and then dismantle public education," Talarico said in a statement emailed to KUT.

School voucher programs give families state money to send their kids outside of the public school system. While some GOP lawmakers have tried to pass this type of legislation in previous legislative sessions, Democrats and rural Republicans have blocked the measures.

But this year, Gov. Greg Abbott has joined Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in vocally advocating for school vouchers in the form of education savings accounts. Abbott has toured the state to garner support for the legislation and Patrick touted the bill’s passage in the Texas Senate, which he presides over.

“I have always believed in our public school system of over 8,000 campuses,” Patrick said in a statement last month. “Many schools are great, most are good, but we also have those that are failing our students. That is why we need school choice for parents who want options other than their failing public school.”

The Texas Senate approved SB 8 in April and sent it to the House, where it has been expected to face more opposition. State representatives voted 86-52 last month to include an amendment in the House state budget proposal to prohibit the use of state funds for school voucher programs.

The version of the bill state senators okayed would give families $8,000 in taxpayer money to cover the cost of things such as tuition and fees for private school, a private tutor, uniforms and textbooks.

The bill also sought to sweeten the deal for rural lawmakers by promising $10,000 dollars in state funding for every student who leaves a district with less than 20,000 students to use a school voucher instead. Districts would get that money for five years. All told, the education savings account program the Texas Senate approved is projected to cost more than $500 million over the next two years.

The version of SB 8 the House Public Education Committee is expected to vote on has an even higher price tag of $800 million, according to a bill summary KUT obtained.

What’s in the new version of SB 8?

Let’s start with the eligibility requirements laid out in the committee substitute for Senate Bill 8. The House version of the bill has more restrictions on who can qualify for an education savings account.

Two groups of students who would be eligible are those who are economically disadvantaged or have a disability. Students are also eligible if they attend a school that received a D or F rating from the Texas Education Agency "for one of the two most recent school years." Students with a sibling in the education savings account program would also qualify.

While the original version of SB 8 would give all students the same sum of money for an education savings account, the committee substitute for the bill is more varied. Low-income students, for example, would receive $9,000 to attend nonpublic schools. Students with disabilities would get at least $9,000. Students with disabilities who are also low-income would receive at least $10,500. All other eligible students would receive $7,500 in an education savings account.

Bob Popinski is the senior director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas, a group that opposes school vouchers. He said that unlike public schools, private schools are not required to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

"Whether the voucher is geared toward special education students or not, a private school or vendor does not have to provide those same types of services," he said.

Popinski said the Senate and House versions of SB 8 are bad policy because non-public schools are not subject to the same oversight as public ones.

"You don't fall under the same accountability system," he said. "You don't have to fall under the same certification issues for your teachers. You don't have to have a locally elected board overseeing you."

The House version of SB 8 does require students with education savings accounts to take a state standardized test, but Popinski said even that accountability measure falls short.

There are a number of other differences between the House and Senate versions of SB 8. The House version, for example, does not include funding for small school districts that lose students to the school voucher program. The committee substitute also dropped restrictions included in the Senate version of the bill around discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.

The House version of SB 8 introduced new provisions related to standardized testing included phasing out and replacing the State Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test by the 2027-2028 school year.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton R-Conroe, who filed SB 8, said on Twitter Wednesday that he remains committed to the bill because Texans support "school choice."

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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