Several members of a House panel on Tuesday showed little support for a bill that would help supplement private school tuition for schoolchildren.
Gov. Greg Abbott has made such a bill a special legislative session agenda item and the Senate passed a version last week.
Public school advocates, however, have called the scholarships a voucher scheme by lawmakers who critics say should be focusing on building up public schools instead of taking students and funding out of them. Proponents of the scholarships say they give a small number of students who aren’t getting the necessary services in their public schools the opportunity to find a better fit for them.
Under House Bill 253 by Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, public school students who have disabilities can qualify for up to $10,000 in tax credit scholarships to attend a private school. Students with disabilities who want to stay in public school would get some money, too — up to $500 in 2019 and increasing 5 percent every year after that.
The tax credit scholarships and education assistance program would be funded by donations from insurance companies, who in return would receive a tax credit from the state, capped at $75 million each fiscal year.
“There will be some students that fall through the crack just because (a public school) just doesn’t fit their particular need and I’m just trying to provide some hope for those children,” said Simmons, who added only a small number of students will use the scholarship.
Chairman of the House Public Education Committee Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said he wasn’t convinced that the scholarship was the best solution to helping special education students. Through the hourslong hearing on Tuesday, he repeatedly mentioned other efforts from the House, including a bill he has resurrected from the regular legislative session that would give school districts grants to shore up services for students with autism.
“We’ve offered meaningful solutions that were … dismissed when they went over to the Senate,” Huberty said. “If they don’t want to have a policy discussion, then there’s no point in us continuing down that road.”
Fellow committee members Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio; Harold Dutton, D-Houston; and Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, also raised concerns about the bill. Another member Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, introduced in the hearing Tuesday a bill that would help certain special education students in public schools by creating a $10 million per year program to help them received services such as tutoring and educational therapy.
More than 50 people signed up to speak on HB 253 Tuesday. Many of them were in favor of the bill, including private school officials and parents with children with special needs for whom public schools had failed.
“I have nine years … to get him ready to be an adult,” said Katy resident Agatha Thibodeaux, whose son has autism. “I don’t have time for the school district to figure it out through lengthy processes.”
Among those who spoke against it were public school supporters who warned that parents who choose private school give up federal education laws that protect children with disabilities and that even with the scholarship, tuition would still be unaffordable for many families.
“This movement is nothing more a gift card for a select few,” said Kyle Ward with Texas PTA.
Other provisions in the bill includes $120 million over the next two years to help public charter schools and school districts to build facilities and a $150 million hardship grant program that would help school districts that are slated to lose so-called ASATR funding in September.
The committee did not vote on HB 253 on Tuesday.
HB 253 is similar to Senate Bill 2, which the Senate passed last week.