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Texas House committee considers pared-down school voucher bill despite governor's veto threat

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
KUT News

A showdown between the Texas House and Senate over school vouchers could come soon if a House committee moves forward with a bill they spent hours discussing Monday.

If passed, Senate Bill 8 would give eligible families access to education savings accounts to pay for private school tuition. The Texas House Public Education Committee heard invited testimony on a new version of the session’s most prominent private school choice bill — but the panel did not vote on the measure.

The version of the bill proposed by the committee chair over the weekend was significantly different from the version approved by the Senate. On Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to veto the bill and call special sessions if the more limited eligibility proposed by the House committee remains in the final bill.

At the start of the hearing, Committee Chair Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), whose wife is a public school administrator, said the bill is not meant to be anti-public school; just to provide options for families.

"I love and appreciate our public education system and those that serve our communities within our schools and the opportunities they provide to students," Buckley said. "Instead, it's meant to provide support to those who need services and options outside of what some students are currently receiving."

Members of the House Public Education Committee have until Saturday to vote on the bill if they want to make it onto the House calendar before the end of the session.

Limited eligibility

The House committee’s version of the bill limits eligibility to children with a disability or children who previously attended a public school rated F under the state’s academic rankings. Kindergartners zoned to attend F-rated schools would also be eligible, as well as the siblings of eligible students.

Under theversion of the bill passed by the Senate, eligibility was much wider in scope. Any private-school student who previously attended a public school would qualify for an education savings account, regardless of the school’s academic rankings. All kindergartners would also be eligible, which would eventually allow every private school student in the state the option of an education savings account, assuming they apply for an ESA in kindergarten and stay enrolled in private school through 12th grade.

In a statement released Sunday, Gov. Abbott said the House committee version “does little to provide meaningful school choice” and “would be vetoed if it reached my desk.”

Abbott said an earlier version of the House bill released last week, which also included low-income students and students in D rated schools, “provides a more meaningful starting point to begin House-Senate negotiations.”

“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,” Abbott said. “Parents and their children deserve no less."

The governor estimated that 4 million of the state’s 5.5 million public school students would be eligible to use state funds to pay for private school tuition under the original House proposal, but only 800,000 would qualify under the version proposed by the House committee.

Assessment overhaul

The House committee version also adds an entirely new section to the bill overhauling the state’s standardized tests.

It would phase out STAAR, the state’s current, unpopular, standardized test and remove the requirement that high school students pass standardized tests in order to graduate.

The STAAR would be replaced with three benchmark tests a year in 3rd -8th grades and with the state’s college readiness test, the Texas Success Initiative Assessment, in high school.

Buckley, the committee chair, said the provision would remove the “high-stakes” component of standardized tests that leads to schools going to great lengths, like holding parades, in order to encourage students to do well.

“We have ramped up the anxiety to a level that it just can't stop,” Buckley said during the hearing. “The current state of the STAAR test, especially on our younger kids, has just gone too far.”

Buckley said the benchmark tests could be taken in as little as an hour. Many schools give students benchmark tests already to see how students are progressing and to adjust instruction.

The governor’s statement pointed to the elimination of STAAR as an element “attracting even more legislators” to the House bill.

However, Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) said during the hearing he was worried the assessment overhaul was being rushed through with just two weeks left in the session.

“The public has still not had an opportunity to testify on these changes that are made as part of this proposal,” he said.

Talarico pointed to Abbott’s statement as a reason not to push through changes to assessments.

“Changes to our testing and accountability system are very important,” Talarico said. Still, he added, “I don't think they should be used as a bargaining chip in discussions about vouchers.”

The Senate version of SB 8 included a so-called Don’t Say Gay provision that barred public schools from providing instruction or guidance on sexual orientation or gender identity in K-12th grade. That provision is not included in the House committee version of the bill.

F schools and special education

Although the House committee version specifically targets F-rated schools, Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) questioned how many students in F schools would actually be able to use an education savings account, or ESA, to attend private school.

“I want to talk about poor kids. I know those,” Allen said. He is a former teacher and principal in low-income neighborhoods.

“First, we mentioned there's no transportation. I want that to soak in. There is no transportation. The state is not providing any transportation. Where is the private school in my neighborhood that a child can go to?” Allen asked during the hearing. “In my district, I only know one private school. And that tuition is somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000.”

Due to distance, lack of transportation, and the difference between the amount of an ESA and the amount of tuition at some private schools, Allen said many rural students and low-income students won’t be able to use them.

We're leaving behind the majority of the children in the state of Texas. Of the 5 million children in the state of Texas, the majority are low income. So, we're not solving problems for them. There are other ways to solve the problem. Make the schools better, make the profession better,” Alma said to applause from the audience.

The House committee heard only invited testimony Monday. Those invited to testify included representatives of Catholic schools and the principal of a private school that specializes in supporting students with behavioral disabilities.

The principal said she had to turn parents away because she can’t raise enough money to give scholarships to everyone who needs one.

Representatives of school districts and teacher groups were also invited. They testified that special education students had more protections and federal funding when enrolled in public school, and that the state’s budget surplus was better spent addressing the teacher shortage.

Laura Colangelo, the director of the Texas Private School Association, also testified. She said that despite references to the expensive cost of some private schools, the median price of tuition in Texas is $9,831, closer to the amount some students could receive with an ESA.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.