Texas Senate approves school choice legislation

The Texas Senate passed its school choice proposal today, despite the issue facing a significant roadblock after the House took the opposite approach in the same afternoon.

School choice had momentum in Texas this year like never before, having made both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority list and Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency items this legislative session and even bringing former Gov. Rick Perry out in support.

The Senate’s solution for school choice is a dual proposition of a “parental bill of rights” and education savings accounts (ESA).

“We have the chance, opportunity, and obligation,” said Rep. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) on proposed school choice solution, emphatically stating “this bill is a game changer for education freedom in Texas.”

The ESA plan would grant $8,000 for each student per year, to be distributed quarterly. Students eligible for the ESA plan must attend a public school or have attended one for 90 percent of the previous school year, or be entering Pre-K. Private and homeschool students are not eligible under the current plan.

The plan also includes a “hold harmless” provision for rural school districts with fewer than 20,000 students, which will receive a $10,000 dollar state-funded payment for each student who decides to leave the district.

The “parental bill of rights” portion includes allowing for parents to transfer their children to school districts if seats are available, transparency and review opportunities of the curriculum, and a chain of command and communication when grievances are filed. Additionally, it would prohibit the adoption of any sexual orientation or identity curriculum by the State Board of Education.

Early in the floor debate, Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) asked Creighton about funding, audits, and admissions.

Creighton was able to clarify many points, including that the funding for his school choice option would come from the state’s general fund. In regards to audits and fraud, he made a point to mention that the bill has provisions and protections in place so the tax dollars are being used properly. Admissions was a large portion of the discussion as Creighton asserted that parents are at the center of their children’s education choices and so should be the ones to dictate where their child gets educated.

During questioning from Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), Creighton engaged in a back-and-forth regarding  other states like Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and Arizona that have similar school choice options and what the preferred outcomes would be. Creighton pointed to those states that have seen positive trends in their student outcomes after instituting their own school choice programs, but West countered that those school choice options are not being taken advantage of by the lowest academically-performing populations in those states.

Creighton and West zeroed in on Louisiana and Indiana, with Creighton mentioning how those examples from other states did not offer the same private school options in their school choice plans.

After a lengthy debate process that had  29 amendments proposed, the Senate did pass Senate Bill (SB) 8 18 to 13.

The accompanying Senate Bill (SB) 9 includes teacher pay raises and gives educators the opportunity to terminate their contracts without losing their certifications. It also provides teachers with mentorship and residency programs and tuition-free Pre-K for their own children.

SB 9 passed relatively easily on the floor by a vote of 21 to 10. The one point of debate was over an amendment to increase a one-time pay raise for teachers from $2,000 — with an additional $4,000 for teachers in small districts —  to $10,000; that amendment eventually failed.

Leading into the floor vote, there have been continued conversations and controversies surrounding school choice in Texas.

The Senate Committee on Education endured a marathon testimony session that brought out a long list of both supporters and opponents. National advocates for school choice like Corey DeAngelis made his way to Texas to voice his support for the bill, while groups like Pastors for Children advocated against the proposed legislation, stating they disagreed with tax dollars being sent to religious institutions.

The conversation surrounding religious schools was clarified after Attorney General Ken Paxton released an opinion on the constitutionality of ESAs, stating that “payments that can be directed to public and private schools, including ‘sectarian’ schools, and that offers parents and students a genuine and independent choice to select a private religious school does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

Congressman Chip Roy (R-TX-21) recently criticized the school choice options being offered in Texas, stating that if school passes and “leaves out hard-working parents who have been making that choice previously … the Texas GOP should be burned to the ground.”  He continued with his statements online that “if the GOP-led Texas legislature fails to empower parents and children with true universal choice, the Texas GOP will be decimated.”

Earlier in the day, the Texas House approved an amendment to the state budget that would bar state funds from being used for school “vouchers” or similar programs. After the school choice vote in the Senate and the budget amendment vote in the House, Roy commented on social media, “I support school choice. But I wouldn’t support current SB8 in the Texas legislature until it stops discriminating against working parents who’ve already chosen to protect their kids in private school…should be universal.”

“Parents are the single most important factor to the success of their child in education, followed by a teacher,” Patrick said in a statement following the passage of SB 8.

“Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all support school choice because Texans agree families must have choice in education so every child has the best chance of success.”
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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