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PolitiFact: School voucher bills are nothing new for Texas Legislature

Near the start of this year’s legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stood on the Capitol’s steps and exhorted lawmakers in the House and Senate to vote on “school choice” legislation, saying it’s “easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it.”

An advocacy group opposed to using public money to support students going to private and religious schools urged a different course. In a press release, the Coalition for Public Schools, which says it represents religious, child advocacy and education organizations, urged the Legislature to “focus its efforts on providing support for our neighborhood public schools instead of funneling public tax dollars to (private school) voucher schemes with little or no accountability for how our tax dollars are spent.”

The eight-paragraph release closed with a historical claim: “Texas legislators have filed voucher proposals in every legislative session since 1995, but all of them have failed to become law.”

That’d be a big 0 for 11 for voucher proponents because state lawmakers convene in regular session every odd-numbered year.

We decided to check the record.

Wondering how the coalition reached its conclusion, we contacted a member, the Texas Freedom Network, which emailed us a web link to a 2007 network report including an appendix listing Texas “voucher legislation” dating to 1993.

We paused to cover some definitions. Huriya Jabbar, a University of Texas professor of education administration who has studied school choice and the political dimensions of education reforms, told us that “school choice” can include access to charter schools or the option to transfer to a different public school. Meanwhile, “private school choice” involves the use of public funds for private or parochial education.

Asked about defining school vouchers alone, Jabbar pointed us to a 2015 article in Education Week, which said vouchers give parents “public funding allocated for their child toward tuition at a private school of their choice, including religiously affiliated private schools.”

Education savings accounts, similar to vouchers, can also pay for private tuition, the story says, though money in an account could be put toward out-of-class educational expenses such as tutoring or online enrichment. States that support such accounts set aside money based on per-pupil funding estimates; parents may withdraw money for approved expenses, the story says.

In Texas in 2017, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed Senate Bill 3 proposing education savings accounts for students from families at all income levels plus scholarships for students with the “greatest financial and academic need,” Taylor’s measure states, to be supported by tax credits.

Next, let’s review what we spotted in legislation considered beginning with the 1995 session, which we based on text searches of the Texas Legislative Service website Telicon and the Texas Legislature online, which is managed by the Texas Legislative Council, session by session, coming up with 29 proposed bills related to school choice with funding in the form of vouchers, scholarships or savings accounts.

We then checked each of the bills in the Coalition for Public Schools’ list in both services, to account for any that our search might have missed. We found 54 relevant bills, spanning every legislative session from 1995 onward.

A form of public school choice, short of private school vouchers, passed into law in 1995, when lawmakers created the Public Education Grant program. It was open to students in any school where at least half them didn’t perform satisfactorily on state tests the three previous years or those in a school that was declared “low performing” by the state during those years, according to a 1997 House Research Organization summary. Under the law, each eligible student could attend a school in another district backed by the state and local funding provided for their education in their original district.

In 1997, lawmakers widened such opportunities via House Bill 318, authorizing the state to fund up to 100 “open-enrollment charter schools,” which students could attend with the grants, and otherwise allowing eligible students to apply a grant to attend another school in their home districts. Among other tweaks, a student would newly be eligible if half or more of a school’s students performed unsatisfactorily in any two of the three previous years.

Our ruling:

The coalition said: “Texas legislators have filed voucher proposals in every legislative session since 1995, but all of them have failed to become law.”

All told, we identified 54 failed bills, at least one in each of the 11 regular sessions from 1995 through 2015, that proposed the use of public funds for private school tuition, though not every one was a pure voucher proposal.

We rate this statement True.

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