Texas House Throws Down Gauntlet on Vouchers

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Rep. Diego Bernal reminds everyone of Texas Democrat Convention Chair Joaquin Castro's great qualities and leadership. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

State Rep. Diego Bernal is a Democrat who represents the 123rd District, which includes downtown San Antonio.

The Texas House Thursday overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the Senate budget prohibiting any state funds to be spent on vouchers.

Such programs include education savings accounts (ESA’s) and tax-credit scholarships as proposed in Senate Bill 3, which passed 18-13 earlier on Thursday.

The amendment, proposed by State Rep. Abel Herrero (D-34) and supported by State Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-1), is sweeping. The budget cannot allocate funds “to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic education,” the amendment states. The House voted 103-44.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), vice chair of the House Committee on Public Education, said that the amendment drew bipartisan support.

“It shows how out of touch the policy is with the majority of the state,” he said. “It’s politics by way of policy, and people on both sides of the the aisle saw through it.”

State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-122) was the only Bexar County representative to vote against the amendment.

The Texas State Teachers Association spoke in favor of the amendment.

“In voting overwhelmingly to prohibit state funds from being spent on vouchers, members of the Texas House chose to represent their constituents’ neighborhood schools instead of spending their tax dollars to let a select few attend private schools that are not accountable to taxpayers,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria said. “A recent bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA showed that Texans overwhelmingly oppose diverting tax dollars to vouchers and instead favor tapping into the Rainy Day Fund to increase spending for under-funded neighborhood public schools.”

The Senate passed SB 3 without a clear funding mechanism, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Prior to passage it had to be amended to appease senators from rural districts. It now exempts counties with less than 285,000 constituents, where options are scarcer and loss of even minimal student funding could cripple districts.

“SB 3 has always been dead in the House,” Bernal said.

The House’s budget amendment would further weaken the Senate’s ability to expand school choice; however, both chambers will need to reconcile their budgets before Gov. Greg Abbott can approve a final version.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has praised SB 3, saying, “School choice is the civil rights issue of our time. Texas is one of 20 states that does not have a school choice program and Senate Bill 3 will finally change that.”

Lubbock ISD Superintendent Berhl Robertson Jr. presented an opposite view of SB 3’s effect on civil rights.

“I think it’s almost another form of segregation,” Robertson said in a statement to Everything Lubbock.

Analysts see a clear difference between the budgets in terms of school finance. In addition to the anti-voucher amendment, the House budget covers inflation for public schools’ student spending while the Senate budget does not.

The Senate budget, along with other efforts to eliminate tax-based funding “speak not to the lean and mean economic policies of Texas, but to the real lack of commitment to education,” Bernal said.

While state dollars for private schools are still a hard sell, greater cooperation between charters and public school districts has proven to be a more palatable way to encourage innovation in schools.

Both chambers will hear debate on another pair of bills that would create an optional program allowing school districts to partner with charter schools. San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and KIPP San Antonio Chief of Staff Dalia Contreras testified in front of the Senate Education Committee in support of SB 1882.

“We’re supporting the bill because we might want to do something in the future,” SAISD Legislative Coordinator Seth Rau said.

The bill would allow each partnership to look different, but would likely alleviate facilities burdens for charter schools and allow school districts to foster innovation while holding on to the funds that follow students when they leave districts for charters.

Teacher groups have opposed the bill, saying that it allows too much opportunity for contracts to be nullified and other abuses. Each partnership would independently negotiate contracts to determine if employees of the charter school would be hired and accountable to the charter school or the district.

The bill, authored by State Sens. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) and Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) reflects another bipartisan effort to support neighborhood schools while acknowledging the growing role of charters.

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