Fight over 'school choice' begins in the Texas Senate

The fight over education savings accounts is kicking off in the Texas Senate again today as parents, advocates and teachers prepare for hours of testimony before lawmakers.

The Senate’s priority bill would give parents $8,000 to use on a child’s private school tuition or other education-related expenses, such as uniforms or textbooks.

Conroe Republican Sen. Brandon Creighton, chair of the Senate education committee, outlined to other committee members his proposal, which is similar to one he rolled out in the regular session.

“There can be harmony between lifting up our public schools like never before …. and also making sure that moms and dads across this state, if they don’t find what they need, and they need other options, that they have a chance to apply to a program that will give them those options,” Creighton said.

However, many public school advocates oppose any voucherlike effort, noting that private schools don’t have to accept every student, including those with disabilities, and aren’t held to the same accountability or transparency standards. Meanwhile, the cost of private education is often more expensive than $8,000.

“The issue for me is that we’re creating a framework within this bill to allow for our limited tax dollars to be set aside to help subsidize private education, without any guarantees all of our constituents will be treated equally,” Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said.

Creighton said his plan would draw $500 million from general revenue, without tapping Foundation School Program dollars that are for public campuses. Funds would be administered by the state comptroller’s office, which would also be responsible for auditing the program and preventing fraud.

Most Texas children would be eligible for an education savings account, or ESA, under Creighton’s plan, but those from low-income families and students with disabilities would be prioritized.

Notably, some spots would be available to students who already are enrolled in private schools. Critics of voucherlike programs lament that in many cases, state dollars flow to people who have already chosen to pay for private education. They liken it to a coupon for middle class and wealthy families.

Menéndez and other Democrats used Tuesday’s hearing to hammer home their criticisms of any voucherlike program.

And they rejected the assertion that public school dollars wouldn’t be diverted: Texas public schools are funded based on how many students are enrolled. If children withdraw in favor of attending a private campus, the amount of money allocated to their former public school would go down.

A fiscal note published Tuesday acknowledges that funding to local schools “may decrease as a result of the bill due to students leaving public schools to participate in the program.”

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he was worried Texas would follow the path laid out by some other states: Pass a limited voucherlike program now only to gradually expand it in the near future.

“It will increase,” West said. “You start off with the poor children in the state of Texas. It ends up being universal.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated that he wants universal ESAs for Texas children.

Republicans lamented that other states lead the way on school choice initiatives, while Texas lags behind places like Florida and Arizona. Creighton said one benefit of taking up ESAs now is that the Legislature can learn lessons from other programs.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said, for example, that the fraud control measures in the bill get ahead of issues seen elsewhere.

The proposal is expected to pass the Senate – as it did during the regular session. It is expected to face an uphill battle in the House where the lower chamber has repeatedly swatted down such initiatives.

A provision in previous versions of the bill, which was intended to serve as a financial sweetener to rural Republicans, is not in Creighton’s current proposal. It would have provided a “hold harmless” for very small districts, paying them thousands of dollars for every student who uses an education savings account to leave.

Creighton said it was cut after House members didn’t find it attractive enough.

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