Texas House votes against public funding for school choice programs

By a vote of 86 to 52 with 11 present but not voting, the Texas House approved a proposed budget amendment to prohibit the use of state dollars for a voucher or Education Savings Account (ESA) program, a test vote on the school choice legislation fight to come.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) filed the amendment, which was signed onto by six members: Reps. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), Ana Hernandez (D-Houston), Armando Walle (D-Houston), Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), Glenn Rogers (R-Graford), and Stan Lambert (R-Abilene). Each voted for the amendment.

The amendment text read, “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.”

There were nine Republicans and one Democrat who voted “Present Not Voting” (PNV) on the amendment; the one Democrat was Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston).

24 Republicans voted with almost all Democrats to approve the amendment — Rep. Sergio Munoz (D-Palmview) joined the rest of the Republicans voting against the amendment.

Herrero proposed the same amendment last session, which passed with only 29 votes in opposition — 19 of the Republicans who voted for the 2021 version either voted against or voted PNV in this year’s version.

After the amendments, including Herrerro’s, were pre-filed Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott made his first appearance on the House floor this session. School choice has been the governor’s biggest issue this session, touring the state to rally support for the issue.

He also made it an emergency item this session during his 2023 State of the State address.

While the House considered House Bill 1, its biennial budget, the Senate brought to the floor its school choice plan: Senate Bill (SB) 8 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe).

That proposal would allow current public school students or those entering pre-kindergarten to access ESAs worth up to $8,000 per year. Current private school students and homeschoolers would not be able to access the ESAs. The bill would reimburse rural school districts with fewer than 20,000 students $10,000 for every student that leaves their district through an ESA.

Some rural Republicans have been hesitant or outright opposed to any kind of school choice reform, concerned about the potential financial effect on their school districts. 

Because there is currently no money appropriated to school choice programs — as no such program yet exists — the vote is more symbolic than anything but bodes poorly for SB 8 should it make it over to the House.

The Senate passed a school choice bill last session, but it stalled out in the House Public Education Committee, then chaired by Dutton. This session, a Republican, Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Salado) chairs that committee; Buckley voted against the Herrero amendment.

Before consideration of the amendment, Buckley moved to table the amendment which failed by a vote of 64 to 71. There were 12 members whose vote did not register on the motion to table. Right before a record vote was called on that motion, a division vote — whereby members’ votes are cast but not recorded officially — was called. But according to Rep. Ellen Troxclair (R-Lakeway), her division vote in favor of tabling was wiped away during the record vote on the motion. Others whose votes did not register were Reps. Caroline Harris (R-Georgetown) and Kronda Thimesch (R-Lewisville).

Buckley’s committee has on the agenda next week a few different bills pertaining to a variety of school choice measures.

“The budget is not the appropriate place to have this debate [over school choice],” Buckley told the body.

Herrero said on the floor, “This is about public funds for public schools.”

He was one of a few Republicans who spoke against the amendment.

Now eyes move on the issue to SB 8 and the other school choice proposals Buckley’s committee will hear next week.

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