Texas House and Senate offer competing school choice bills

The differences between the Texas House and Senate are visible in the contrast of how each chamber handled bills relating to school choice during the first week of the fourth special session. While the lower chamber continues to hear dozens of individuals give public testimony in committee, the upper chamber has sprinted across the finish line.

The Senate has proposed two education bills, identical to those filed in the third special session last month, to heed the call from Gov. Greg Abbott to create an education savings account program and to increase teacher salaries and school funding. 

The House offered a new version of its own omnibus package in the form of House Bill (HB) 1 from Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), who received pushback over a previous version of the bill filed in the third special. 

This week, HB 1 was scheduled to be heard in the House Select Committee Educational Opportunity & Enrichment created to address school choice. Democratic House members and some Republicans have been vocally opposed to passing a “school voucher” bill, and their public dissent was continually echoed during the hearing.

Buckley, the chair of the select committee, said during the hearing that his bill “delivers historic funding and accountability and assessment reform for our public schools, while also creating education savings accounts that prioritize students with learning challenges and families most in need of education options.”

Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) said she is conflicted when it comes to school choice. 

“I believe we’re at a pivotal time as it relates to education. What can we do to turn this around and truly reimagine education as a whole so that we are truly addressing the needs?” said Gervin-Hawkins.

That concern was reiterated by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) when he said, “There’s no chance in hell any voucher helps one student in House District 88. Not going to happen.”

Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin), who has been a consistently outspoken opponent of school choice programs, said HB 1 is a compromise and that “sometimes a compromise is not a good thing.”

“The wealthy special interests that are pushing voucher schemes in this state … don’t believe in public education.”

While the House was fielding public testimony from the more than 100 people who signed up to give their thoughts in committee, the Senate held a last-minute committee meeting for both Senate Bills (SB) 1 and 2 and sent them to the floor for debate without taking public testimony.

The architect of the education bills, Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), said, “We’ve had over 30 hours of testimony and hearings, inviting Texans from all over the state,” when asked why the decision was made to quickly move the bills through committee. “We decided to make all of the committees today have sort of a concerted effort to have the hearings, get the member input and get back to the Senate floor.”

When asked about the House’s school choice proposal and the possibility of it passing through the Senate, Creighton was optimistic, saying there is “alignment in the subject matter and the bones of the components of it … of course, we have different ideas of the details.”

“On bills that have incredible significance like this, we are very used to going to conferences and negotiating those details and differences, and we will do the same on this.”

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.

SB 2 will increase the per-student basic allotment provided to school districts by $75. The bill also includes a one-time retention payment for teachers alongside a permanent pay raise. 

HB 1 will include increases in public school funding and teacher salaries. ESAs in its program would be equal to 75 percent of the total state and local funding per student for the applicable fiscal year, approximately $10,500 per student.  

“This bill is a universal bill for school choice,” Creighton said as he laid out SB 1 before the Senate on Thursday evening. “We all recognize that not every student can thrive in the same education environment.”

Senators debated over the ESA program and many Democratic members attempted to introduce amendments, but the bill was passed 18 to 10 and SB 2 was passed 27 to 1 on Thursday evening. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has been absent from the chamber due to viral pneumonia, sent out a press release praising the Senate’s actions.

“Parents must have options other than just their local public school, and the passage of this universal ESA bill represents a great opportunity to place education freedom back in their hands,” Patrick wrote.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) was less than pleased about the operation of the Senate procedures, calling it “political gamesmanship of the Governor or Lt. Governor.”

“The specifics of legislation should be seen in the light of day. SB 1 does not provide Texas families with a choice. It empowers private schools with their choice of students, curriculum, price tag, and measures of success.”

HB 1 was passed in committee on Friday morning by a vote of 10 to 4. It is now eligible to head to the floor for full debate.

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