House, Senate disagreement on ‘vouchers’ kills school funding bill

7:04 p.m Wednesday, May 24, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston

The prospect of Texas public schools getting any additional money over the next two years is gone.

The Texas House on Wednesday took yet another overwhelming vote against so-called school choice, which would redirect state money to help students pay for private school tuition. Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said the move killed House Bill 21, which over the last few weeks has turned from the Legislature’s most promising school finance bill into a school choice measure.

“I’m sorry they chose to kill House Bill 21, but that’s the choice they’ve made,” Taylor said.

The original bill, filed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would have added at least $1.6 billion into the public education system, but the Senate has said the state can’t afford the price tag and rejected a method the House proposed to pay for HB 21.

The Senate early Monday passed a version of HB 21 that would have injected far less — $530 million — into public schools while creating a school choice program for special education students. Under the system, the state would have redirected per-student money from public schools into so-called education savings accounts that special education students could use to pay for private school tuition.

A majority of senators believe that private school choice programs would allow parents to have more say in their children’s education, including the ability to leave failing public schools. A majority of House members believe that such programs lack accountability, wouldn’t improve student performance and would strip money from cash-strapped schools.

READ: What’s in the Senate’s version of House Bill 21

Huberty said earlier Wednesday the Legislature was missing an opportunity to make meaningful changes after the Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s way of funding public schools was broken and minimally constitutional. Huberty blamed the Senate this session for preventing any progress toward fixing the school finance system.

“It’s the Legislature’s job … to equitably fund school finance in the state of Texas,” Huberty said. “They stripped the bill of all the solid policy work. Our committee worked very hard, and in most cases we made compromises.”

Huberty formally announced that he wasn’t going to agree with the changes that the Senate made to HB 21 on Wednesday and wanted the chambers’ differences worked out in a conference committee.

Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who is the House appropriations chairman, instructed the conference committee to not adopt any education savings account or school choice programs that would use state money to support private schools. The House adopted Zerwas’ proposal, 101-45.

Wednesday’s vote mirrored one the House made last month during the marathon debate on the House’s version of the state budget. With 104 members voting in favor, the House had passed an amendment to the budget that barred state money from going to school choice programs.

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“The Senate has chosen to focus on sending taxpayer dollars to private schools. Most House members don’t support that idea, as today’s vote once again showed,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a statement Wednesday.

After Wednesday’s vote in the House, Taylor said he wasn’t planning on assigning anyone from the Senate to the conference committee.

He added that Huberty and Zerwas spread misinformation about how the Senate wasn’t willing to pay for its version of HB 21. The Senate was willing to defer payments to managed care organizations under Medicaid, Taylor said.

“I’m sorry that it was put out there … because a lot of people voted it down, thinking there was no way to fund it,” Taylor said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a longtime proponent of private school choice, called the House’s decision appalling.

“Although Texas House leaders have been obstinate and closed-minded on this issue throughout this session, I was hopeful when we put this package together last week that we had found an opening that would break the logjam,” Patrick said in a statement. “I was wrong.”

Some Central Texas school districts, including Austin, that were hoping HB 21 would lower “recapture” payments to the state, which are used to help fund property-poor school districts, won’t find relief. The Austin school district’s recapture payment is estimated to be $534 million next school year, more than any other Texas district.

In addition to lowering recapture payments, HB 21 also would have established a $150 million grant program to help about 150 school districts slated to lose so-called additional state aid for tax reduction funding in September.

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