Texas House makes several changes to Senate school choice bill

The push for school choice in Texas has so far been led by the Senate and their efforts to establish a plan for education savings accounts (ESA), but a new version in the House makes sweeping changes to eligibility requirements, curriculum, testing, and money allocation.

Senate Bill (SB) 8 is authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), a vocal advocate for the legislation and school choice. 

“I think that [school choice] reflects the sentiments of our moms and dads that are out there doing their best every day to make life make sense but their top priority is for their kids to get the education they need and deserve,” stated Creighton.

The previous school choice plan by Creighton included specific requirements and rural carve-outs which now have been either altered or removed in the House’s revisions.

Previously in the Senate’s plan, the ESAs were a proposal to grant $8,000 for each student if they were found to be eligible. Now, a tiered funding strategy and new eligibility requirements are included.

Students, in the new House plan, are eligible if they are economically disadvantaged, have a disability, were previously enrolled in a public school for at least 90 percent of the previous year, are enrolled in kindergarten or first grade for the first time, or have very recently attended a school that received a performance rating of “D” or lower. 

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) Test is eliminated, which is currently used to assess students on academic progress. It will be replaced with the Texas Success Initiative Assessment (TSIA), a college readiness assessment. A student will also be eligible to graduate high school without a requirement to pass an assessment. 

The TSIA testing schedule will be administered throughout the school year with three “touch points per year/shorter adaptive assessments to gauge student growth.” A student enrolled in the ESA program will be required to take the state assessment. 

The Senate’s school choice plan included provisions that prohibited the State Board of Education from instituting any sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum; that has been eliminated in the House plan. 

The distribution of ESA funds is now tiered with $10,500 allocated for a child who is both low-income and has a disability, $9,000 for either low-income or special needs qualified-students, and $7,500 for all other eligible students. This is another significant change from the Senate’s plan which had a special carve out for rural districts and would have sent $10,000 to a rural school district for each student that decided to leave.

Rural school districts were a sticking point for those opposed to the Senate’s original plan. National school choice advocate Corey DeAngelis, who alleged it was a “ridiculous argument” to use rural districts as an excuse to vote against school choice.

“It’s more of an excuse for Republicans to side with the establishment and vote against their party platform issue,” said DeAngelis. 

With the House committee substitute focused more squarely on the situational aspects of individual students, rather than school districts or enrollment size, the changes in the plan give Republicans an opportunity to shift their opinion on ESAs and school choice. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already voiced his willingness to force a special session if school choice legislation is not passed. 

“If we don’t get some major priorities that people want us to pass because they acted very slowly during the session, then I think we ought to finish the job,” Patrick said.

Earlier in the legislative session, the House passed a controversial amendment to its budget proposal that would prohibit state dollars from being used for a school voucher or education savings account program. It’s expected to be stripped in the budget conference committee.

This House-amended version of SB 8 is expected to be voted out of the House Public Education Committee this week.