Texas House offers new school choice bill

With a fourth special session of the 88th Texas Legislature likely on the horizon, the Texas House has already prepared legislation to address the issue of school choice where the third special session could not.

Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), the chair of the House public education committee, proposed on Friday a new draft of House Bill 1 “(i)n the likely event that Governor (Greg) Abbott calls us back into session next week.”

He said that his “intent is to file this bill at the earliest opportunity.”

The new HB 1, like the previous version of the bill, outlines a variety of different initiatives as part of an omnibus school choice package, including education savings accounts (ESA), teacher pay increases, and additional funding for school districts.

This ESA plan is a universal school choice option that any child will be able to apply for. The amount of money in each ESA in the bill will be “75 percent of the estimated statewide average amount of funding per student in average daily attendance,” amounting to “approximately $10,500” per student, according to the bill summary.

A child who is homeschooled will be eligible to receive $1,000.

The basic allotment in the 2024-25 school year would increase from $6,160 to $6,700 and be adjusted for inflation starting in 2026-27. Roughly 40,000 students will be able to take advantage of the ESA program.

The previous version of HB 1, which an Abbott spokesperson said “differs from what the Governor’s office had negotiated with the House’s leadership team selected by the Speaker,”  had allotted for a maximum of 25,000 students in the first year of the program. The new version replaces that with a monetary cap on how much the state can spend.

The 2024-25 state budget, which was passed during the 88th regular session, includes a $500 million appropriation for ESA programs.

If the total number of applicants for the ESA program exceeds the appropriated funding, then students will be prioritized in a tiered system in the following order:

Children with a disability who are members of a household with total annual income that is at or below 400 percent of federal poverty limit.

Members of a household with a total annual income that is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty limit.

Children who are members of a household with a total annual income that is above 185 percent and below 400 percent of the federal poverty limit.

Children who are members of a household with total annual income that is at or above 400 percent of the federal poverty limit.

Students enrolled in the ESA program will also be required to take a state assessment or a “nationally norm-referenced” test.

The ESA program will also be subject to Texas’ ”sunset” process in 2029, when it will have to be reviewed by the Legislature for renewal, the same year as the Texas Education Agency.

The over 170-page bill includes a variety of other provisions and allocations for teachers and schools for which many Democratic House members have argued.

The bill will provide a $4,000 bonus for full-time teachers, nurses, counselors, and librarians, while part-time employees will receive a $2,000 bonus. In the second year of the program, pay increases will continue through the basic allotment growth. Special education will also receive additional funding, and a teacher residency allotment will be established.

The American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, praised the bill and called it a “significant improvement from the House’s previous proposal.”

“This bill is not perfect, but it comes much closer to creating a strong school choice program for all Texas families.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said he would “support” another special session to start on February 5, 2024 “if the Texas House fails to pass acceptable school choice legislation this fall.”

With only one day left in the third special session, another call is sure to come soon for one of Abbott’s highest political priorities.

Patrick blamed Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) as the reason lawmakers will have to return to the Capitol, calling him “beholden only to the Democrats who put him in office and maintain his position.”

“The Texas Senate will return for the fourth special session, caused by Dade Phelan’s failures, to again advance serious legislation to address the concerns of the conservative majority of Texans – and wait for the Texas House to join the effort.”

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