Scaled back school voucher bill okayed by Senate but faces uncertain future in House
AUSTIN -- After weeks of negotiations, the Texas Senate on Thursday passed a significantly scaled-back version of so-called ‘school choice’ legislation that would allow parents to use public school funds to enroll their children in private or parochial schools.
Senate Bill 3, authored by Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, passed with an 18-13 vote. Three Republicans -- Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, and Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston -- voted against the bill, while it won support from one Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville.
The bill now moves to the House, where it lacks support from a large bipartisan group of members, including Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty of Humble. In February, Huberty said a school choice proposal was “dead, dead, dead.”
The Senate legislation would create educational savings accounts for students who leave public schools and give their parents state funds to pay for tuition, tutors and other educational materials. The public school district that a student leaves would be allowed to keep a portion of the per-pupil funding, according to the bill. It also would establish student scholarships funded by contributions from businesses, which in turn would receive a tax credit.
After a broader version won approval of the Senate Education Committee earlier this month, Taylor narrowed his proposal to win the backing of enough senators to bring the legislation to the Senate floor. Taylor said Thursday that he hastily rewrote parts of the bill minutes before the chamber was scheduled to debate it, prompting concern from colleagues that they did not have sufficient time to review major revisions.
Republicans from rural districts, where private schools are in short supply, had among the strongest reservations to the bill, telling Taylor they were concerned that it would redirect some state funds that otherwise would go to public schools.
The revised bill would limit eligibility to students who have attended a Texas public school for one year before they use the program. It also would apply only to schools in counties with a population over 285,000, based on the 2010 Census count, and would exclude home-schooled students. The population cutoff means the vouchers would only be available to students in 17 of the state’s 254 counties, though less populous rural counties could opt-in if they put a proposal on a general election ballot and voters approve it. For students to be eligible, their family’s annual income must be at least 175 percent below the federal poverty line, which amounts to about $78,000 for a family of four.
Taylor said the modifications would reduce the bill’s cost from $300 million to $9 million over the next two years. Senators had to take Taylor’s word on thatestimate, since a fiscal note examining the bill’s impact after the changes was unavailable.
“It does not affect our public school finance system, but it does provide a small number of students the chance to consider something different,” he said. “I hope by next session when we come back, people will be asking their senators and House members to expand this and put in more folks.”
Democrats and Republicans questioned several parts of the rewrittenbill, specifically what accountability measures the legislation would impose on private schools that receive public funds.
Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, said private schools, for example, do not have to release standardized test score data like public schools do.
“We won’t know if those children are flourishing in those private schools,” he said.
Before the vote, Taylor rejected attempts by Democrats to require that private and public schools meet the exact same standards. An amendment to that effect, introduced by El Paso Sen. Jose Rodriguez, failed by a 18-13 vote.Taylor said that, in the bill, non-public schools must be recognized by the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission, so they are not completely without oversight. Still, the legislation says parents must be notified that private schools are not subject to federal and state laws with regard to student disability services, which public schools are required to provide.
Sen. Jose Menendez of San Antonio and Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, both Democrats, echoed concerns from education advocates that the bill shifted lawmakers’ focus from spending on public schools.
“On the surface, this sounds wonderful, but I don’t think in practice this works as well as it sounds,” Menendez said. “I don’t believe that this system, when we’re far from perfecting our public school system – I don’t think this is the answer.”
The Texas State Teachers Association slammed the bill as a giveaway to private schools.“First the Senate follows Dan Patrick’s lead and cuts state funding for public education. Then senators approve his voucher bill to drain even more of our tax dollars from public schools to help a handful of families pay private school tuition,” the group’s president, Noel Candelaria, said in a statement.
Taylor said the bill was not a one-size-fits-all measure, and he welcomed a later debate about reworking the state’s school finance system.
“We need to be working on public schools across the spectrum,” he said. “We’re trying to reach these kids wherever they are.”