A Republican legislator has filed the House’s first major school choice bill, a pared-down version of a Senate bill that has the backing of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
House Bill 1335 would create an education savings account for certain students who want to leave public school. The accounts, tied to debit cards, would be loaded with state money — equivalent to 90 percent of what school districts get from the state on average to educate a student — that could be used to pay for other education options such as home, online and private schooling. Students who are at risk of dropping out or have special needs, including if they were bullied or are a sex crime victim, would qualify for such an account.
“No matter how much we spend on our public school system, no matter how much we want to make it the best … the system is not set up to be able to educate every single child like they need to be educated so they can meet their own personal manifest destiny,” state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday during a news conference, flanked by several Republican House members, including Reps. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, and Jason Villalba, R-Dallas.
School choice proponents say the concept would expand educational opportunities for students who are attending failing public schools.
Opponents of education savings accounts say that they’re private school vouchers that are meant to strip money from cash-strapped public schools, in which parents already have plenty of options. They say that the education savings accounts have no accountability measures and will only benefit wealthy families, which proponents have disputed.
“We in no way fault the representative for his intention to help students who have either special needs or special circumstances,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “We do think that he is misguided in thinking that the public education system isn’t the best place to serve those kids.”
School choice has been among the most divisive education topics this legislative session, with many conservative Republicans backing the idea.
The Senate bill — which doesn’t limit access to the savings accounts and also includes tax credits for businesses that contribute to a scholarship fund for low-income students to attend a private school — has been given priority by Patrick.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, however, hasn’t expressed the same urgency to pass school choice legislation. House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said this week during a Texas Tribune event that he didn’t think the House would approve school choice legislation this session.
“At the end of the day people up here and people out on the floor with me, they really are public servants. They want to do what’s right,” Simmons said. “The challenge can sometimes come when they’re receiving pressure from some of the people who might be against this because they have a false narrative that believes that if we allow this, public schools will fall apart.”