Texas Senate passes school choice and teacher funding legislation

The Texas Senate has passed its first two bills of the third special legislative session, one to address an item on the governor’s call and the other to make it more palatable to the lower chamber.

The controversy surrounding school choice continued to hit a fever pitch on Thursday night as the Senate’s proposal for education savings accounts (ESA) faced a wide range of arguments on the floor.

Senate Bill (SB) 1 is Sen. Brandon Creighton’s (R-Conroe) proposal for meeting Gov. Greg Abbott’s demand to pass a universal school choice plan during the third special session.

Creighton’s bill will offer an annual $8,000 allotment per student that can be used for any approved education-related expense, which includes private school tuition, transportation services, and other education-related expenses. The funding for the ESA plan will come from a $500 million allocation in the general revenue fund, which is separate from the Foundation School Program dollars that are allocated for public schools.

As Creighton laid out the bill on the Senate floor, he was questioned by lawmakers about its transparency and auditing measures among worries about how the bill will address “discrimination” in private schools.

“We leave it to parents to choose if a school is a right fit … we trust they have the due diligence,” Creighton said. He also stated that the bill will not affect the current admission practices of either public or private schools.

Multiple Democratic senators evoked the topic of racism in their questions.

This was one argument leveled by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) in the committee hearing. Creighton said he was “disappointed” that rhetoric being used to describe what he called “education freedom for parents.”

Many senators asked Crieghton about the scope of the bill, with some claiming that only about “one percent” of students will be served under the total $500 million allocation.

In response to those arguments, Creighton highlighted the eligibility system in the bill, which will institute a prioritization tier system first serving students with disabilities and low-income families.

Creighton said it was “categorically false” that ESAs would take funding from public schools.

The Senate floor debate also tacked on a bevy of amendments — with over 20 proposed.

Notably, an amendment to include homeschool families was adopted to make the bill more “universal.” Homeschooled students will now be eligible to apply and, if accepted by the lottery system, will be allocated $1,000 in comparison to the $8,000.

Multiple amendments in regard to auditing, fraud prevention, and compliance were also added over the course of the night.

Prior to the bill passing, Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) was vocal on social media, calling the school choice special session “our San Jacinto” in response to Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), who is opposed to the legislation, calling this his “Alamo” moment.

West also made an attempt to call a point of order on the grounds that the bill was not confined to a single subject, but after a lengthy discussion, it was overruled.

After hours of debate, the bill passed by a vote of 18 to 13.

Creighton took to social media after midnight to celebrate the passage of SB 1, saying that the Senate is “providing universal school choice to Texas students. This legislation empowers parents and unleashes the potential of Texas education.”

The bill will now head to the House, where it will be heard first in committee before being debated on the chamber floor.

Following the passage of SB 1, Creighton also laid out his teacher pay and public school funding bill. That will include a one-time teacher retention payment, a permanent pay raise, and increased school safety funding.

SB 2 was also subject to a lengthy debate between senators as many additional amendments were tacked onto the bill.

At one point during the late-night floor session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took the opportunity to break the fourth wall and speak directly to those watching the livestream: “For all the media watching right now, I hope you print this, school funding all in.”

He went on to call the idea that the Legislature was not funding public education “just a bold faced lie.”

The school funding and teacher pay bill did eventually pass by a vote of 30 to 1.

With both school choice and teacher funding passed in the Senate, the onus now lies with the House to either move forward with these two bills or offer their own distinct proposals.

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