House plans to counter Patrick’s school finance offer with no ‘vouchers’

5:20 p.m. update: House Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, told the American-Statesman Wednesday afternoon that he’s standing firm in opposing any voucher program but would support more tutoring and charter school funding for special education students. The move comes in response to a deal offered by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that included school choice — a non-start for a majority of House members.

Huberty said that he hadn’t seen the newest changes to House Bill 21 by the afternoon. Huberty said he had told Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, on Tuesday that he was going to offer an alternative to the education savings account school choice program that Taylor had added to HB 21 last week. Huberty said that he thought he and Taylor were on the same page and was disappointed to hear Patrick’s remarks Wednesday morning.

Part of the counter offer that Huberty has laid out for the Senate to consider includes HB 23, which would create a grant program for public schools that would go toward educating students with autism. The offer also contains facilities funding for charter schools for special education purposes and paying for after-school tutoring for special education students, possibly even for those who attend private school.

“I’ve been communicating with Chairman Taylor that I would have a counterproposal to him today and as a result unfortunately, I guess, (Lt.) Gov. Patrick had a press conference laying out their position. I plan on going over and seeing him shortly with the counterproposal as I had promised him … that does not include a voucher,” Huberty said. “I am a parent of a special needs child. I understand more than anybody what these parents go through and what they need.”

2 p.m. update: House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, responded to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s offer of a school finance trade-off by reiterating that a majority of House members don’t want school choice.

“The House made a sincere effort to start fixing our school finance system, but the Senate is trying to derail that effort at the 11th hour. The Senate is demanding that we provide far fewer resources for schools than the House approved and that we begin to subsidize private education – a concept that the members of the House overwhelmingly rejected in early April,” Straus said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

Straus added that the House has made its own efforts to provide more support for students with disabilities without using school choice.

House Bill 23 would create a grant program to fund innovative services for students with autism at public schools and the original version of House Bill 21 would provide more funding for students with dyslexia.

Earlier: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has offered to inject $500 million into the public school system if the Texas House agrees to implementing a school choice program this session.

During a news conference on Wednesday to discuss his remaining priorities, Patrick said the Senate has made changes to House Bill 21, which now contains $200 million for the Foundation School Program (the main way the state funds public schools), $200 million for about 150 school districts who will lose so-called ASATR funding in September, new facilities funding which fast-growth school districts have been asking for and facilities funding for charter schools for the first time.

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Patrick also offered to agree with the House in pushing back a year to 2019 the implementation of the A-F accountablity system, which school districts have said is an unfair and vague way for the state to grade schools.

“All Education Chairman Dan Huberty has to do is concur with the bill we sent in which will have all these elements and take it for an up or down vote on the House floor,” Patrick said.

The catch is that HB 21 also contains a school choice program for special education students and a majority of House members have made it clear that they do not support school choice, an effort that would help students pay for private school tuition. Critics have said school choice is just another name for private school vouchers and would divert money from public schools.

Last week, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, added into HB 21 a school choice program called education savings accounts for special education students. Under the savings account system, $8,300 of per-student funding the school district receives would be diverted to an account that a special education student leaving public school could use on private school tuition or other non-public education expenses.

Critics fear that if the Legislature approves school choice, even if it’s just for one population of students, the system could balloon into universal school choice in a few years.

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Last month, during a marathon debate of the House’s version of the state budget, House members overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would bar any state money from supporting school choice programs the next two years, cementing the chamber’s stance on the issue.

Earlier this week when asked about Taylor’s changes to HB 21, state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, a member of the House Public Education Committee, told the American-Statesman that he’d be willing to vote against the bill if it meant creating a school choice program.

“I’m not optimistic that we’ll get school finance,” King said. “If House Bill 21 doesn’t pass because of a voucher amendment, that is on the head of the lieutenant governor. The speaker and the House has spoken and spoken loudly that school finance is not a priority.”

King and several other rural Republican lawmakers were key in passing an anti-school choice amendment last month. They have said that families wouldn’t see any benefit from school choice because their districts have few private schools and school choice would end up stripping money from their public schools.

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