Texas Senate Not Ready to Surrender on School Vouchers

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Bobby Turner and Andre Agassi of Turner Agassi watch as a class takes place at KIPP Cevallos. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Students attend class at KIPP Cevallos, a local public charter school.

The Texas Senate isn’t ready to give up on school vouchers, despite heavy opposition in the House of Representatives. Working in the late hours of Sunday night and into the wee hours of Monday, the Senate passed what many public school advocates had seen as the best hope for a meaningful step toward school finance reform, House Bill 21. However, the HB 21 that came out of the Senate was not the bill that went in. Among other changes, the Senate version includes a provision for education savings accounts, a voucher-like program championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Patrick has made the education savings account one of his top priorities, seeing it as a essential component of school choice, along with charter schools. However, many charter school advocates oppose vouchers.

The Senate version of HB 21 would allow education savings accounts for students with disabilities. The education savings account program would give families access to the state funds that would have followed their child to public school, should that child not enroll in public school. Funds can go toward private school tuition, home school curriculum, or special services.

Although far narrower in scope than what Patrick had been seeking, the passage of an education savings account plan would be the most aggressive school-choice legislation in Texas to date. In various forms, such programs exist in other states, such as Florida and Indiana, where they have been challenged in court and upheld.

The versions of the bill indicate the different priorities of the legislative bodies, said State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), vice chair of the House Committee on Public Education.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “There’s no way you can look at the Senate version and say with any kind of confidence that public education is one of their few priorities.”

While vouchers may be a must-pass political issue for Patrick, many question whether education savings accounts will help as much as they hurt.

 “My opposition to vouchers has everything to do with whether the money spent is serving the most children possible,” Bernal said. “With vouchers I just don’t see it.”

The Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) calculates that beginning in the second year of operation of the voucher program, Texas school districts would lose more than $40 million annually if 1% of eligible students opted for vouchers, over $81 million annually if 2% opted for vouchers, and over $122 million annually if 3% opted for vouchers.

The fight over vouchers has been “brutal,” according to some involved.

In April, the House boldly amended the Senate’s proposed budget with an amendment that state funds not be used for vouchers. The Senate has countered that move by tying any additional funding for public schools to the education savings account in HB 21.

Changes to HB 21 have led to a total reversal of support from groups such as the CPPP and the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA).

“Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate majority hijacked House Bill 21, a school finance proposal, and put their narrow, ideological preferences above the best interests of Texas’ 5.3 million public school children,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria said in a statement Monday.

School districts are similarly disenchanted, though many say they knew any school funding increase would be subject to a viciously partisan battle.

“Instead of a bill that would have resulted in over $9 million per year for SAISD, we are left with an option that brings in just over $1 million per year and an education savings account that would reduce enrollment and further hurt the district,” SAISD Legislative Coordinator Seth Rau said. “The House is providing real assistance to public schools, where the Senate is asking us to be happy with far less.”

The original HB 21 was not perfect, according to analysts at the CPPP. However, they called the House version of the bill, “a promising first step toward meaningful school finance reform.” Its passage would have added $1.5 billion to public education funding, while the CPPP recommended $2.7 billion to keep up with inflation.

The Senate version includes an additional $530 million for public schools, which is more than their original budget proposal that barely increased funding. The Senate’s version of HB 21 also includes $100 million in first-time facilities funding for charter schools, $20 million in grants for schools with autism services and calls for a 15-member commission to pursue long-term school finance reform.

The Senate legislation lacks many of the provisions of the original version sponsored by House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty. The House version included provisions for students with dyslexia and English language learners, as well as a statutory increase in the basic per-student amount districts receive, known as the basic allotment.

The bill will now go back to the House, where it will either move into conference or die. Bernal, for his part, would like to have a chance to salvage some of the provisions originally included, which represented targeted efforts to solve problems.

In hearings on various voucher proposals, including SB 3, the Senate’s original school-choice bill, Bernal said he heard the pleas of families whose children were not being served by public schools, most of whom had learning disabilities such as autism.

The schools that served them best, however, cost more than any education savings account would pay, Bernal said. Help would still remain far off for many Texas children.

Patrick and other school choice advocates have called school choice “the civil rights issue of our time.” Others have referred to inequities in state public school systems as the “civil rights issue of our time.” Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama both used the phrase.

Proponents of the amended HB 21 praise the bill for furthering civil rights by providing options to individual families.

“This bill opens doors to Texas students by providing more funding and empowering parents of the most vulnerable students with options,” said Stephanie Matthews, senior policy advisor with the Center for Education Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “With this bill, parents of special-needs students will have the ability to determine the best educational environment for their child.”

Bernal and others in the House want to see a solution that goes further, beyond individual families who can afford the remainder of private school tuition. Education reform, Bernal said, should make education better for every child.

“There are people out there who need help,” Bernal said. “The question becomes, how can we reach as many of these kids as possible in a way that helps kids of every stripe, every demographic, in as many parts of the state as possible.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post listed lower numbers for the Center for Public Policy Priorities’ estimated cost of vouchers for public schools. The totals have been updated to match current analysis.

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