Debate over school choice continues in the Texas House

An initial gauge of support for school choice reform in the Texas House is likely to come on a proposed amendment to the 2024-2025 state budget.

On Thursday, the lower chamber will take up House Bill (HB) 1 on what is colloquially known as “budget night” — the biennial tradition during which the 150-member body proposes, debates, and summarily kills hundreds of amendments. One proposed amendment from Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) will provide a test vote on the school choice plan to come later in the session.

“Money appropriated by this Act may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, including an education savings account, tax credit scholarship program, or a grant or other similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic primary or secondary education,” reads the amendment.

Because the current budget doesn’t appropriate money for a broad school choice program — as no such program currently exists — its passage would be more symbolic than substantive for the moment.

Three other members signed onto the amendment: Democrats Ana Hernandez (D-Houston) and Armando Walle (D-Houston), and Republican Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth).

Geren is this session’s speaker pro tempore, nominally the chamber’s second-in-command behind Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont).

Herrero’s proposal is the same as his 2021 version that provided a similar test vote; only 29 members, all Republicans, voted against the measure.

Senate Bill (SB) 8 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) is the most passable school choice plan in the Legislature this year for its use of Education Savings Accounts (ESA); it allows current public school students or new pre-kindergarten students to access $8,000 per year from the state for the purposes of paying for tuition at a private school. ESAs are similar to but not exactly the same as school vouchers, which give parents direct control of the funding.

There’s been a lot of anxiety from rural Republicans about the proposal and how it would affect small school districts. To address that, Creighton’s bill would provide a $10,000 “hold harmless” reimbursement for school districts with fewer than 20,000 students.

Despite Creighton’s efforts, SB 8’s chances in the Senate, while probably good, do not appear invincible. It’s also drawn some opposition from the GOP’s right flank because of the bill’s restrictions on who qualifies for the ESAs — specifically that it would not allow current homeschool or private school students to access the program.

On top of that, the qualms among some corners of the House GOP membership remain, including from Geren.

Last May, Phelan told radio host Chris Salcedo that he’s not against having an “up or down floor vote” but that his gauge on the House’s support for school choice is between 40 and 45 members. That’s a long way off the 76 needed for passage.

School choice’s fate this session is not clear, but it’s hard to see SB 8 not making it in some form over to the House — and with Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen) chairing the House Public Education Committee, its chances of moving to the floor are higher than in 2021.

But that doesn’t mean the votes are there once reaching the floor; if pro-school choice Republicans are unable to kill it in advance, this budget amendment will provide a rough glimpse into the body’s position on what’s become a top-tier legislative issue.

Per the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) — a publicly-funded lobbying organization — has been running social media advertisements backing the Herrero amendment, with which the state’s top elected official took issue.

“This is panic by the educrat monopoly,” Gov. Greg Abbott said on Twitter in response. “Republican House members see that more than 80 [percent] of their voters support school choice. A majority of Democrat voters support school choice. Legislators see [through] misleading info against school choice. Public schools will be fully funded.”

Abbott has made school choice his pet project in Texas, touring the state multiple times per week for “Parent Empowerment Nights.” At many of these, he’s had GOP House members alongside him, including members who voted for Herrero’s 2021 budget amendment such as Rep. John Raney (R-College Station).

While its relation to school choice is unclear, Abbott made his first appearance on the House floor this session on Tuesday, the morning after the chamber’s pre-filed amendments were released.

The school choice momentum in this session dwarfs anything seen in 2021 or 2019. Even former Gov. Rick Perry has thrown his support behind it.

But as ever, the giant question mark rests in the lower chamber and its 150-member body, and Thursday might provide a sneak peek into what’s to come later in the session.

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