The Texas Senate could consider and vote as early as Sunday evening on a House bill that would create a so-called school choice system while fixing various elements of the school finance system.
Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he is still making some final tweaks to House Bill 21 originally filed by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston. He confirmed that the changes that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick revealed during a news conference on Wednesday will be part of the bill.
“I just got the draft done last night,” said Taylor, who is also the Senate Education Chairman. “This is just a major bill. It’s got a lot of parts on it and it’s taken a lot of work … to get to where it is.”
House Bill 21 originally would have injected $1.6 billion extra into the public school system through updating and adding various elements to the school funding formula. However, Taylor said that he has reduced the extra funding to about $540 million, which includes money for the Foundation School Program (the main way the state funds public schools and for about 150 school districts that will lose so-called Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction funding in September. The bill will also include new facilities funding that fast-growth school districts have been asking for and facilities funding for charter schools for the first time.
Taylor said they are willing to agree with the House in delaying until 2019 the implementation of the A-F accountability system, which school districts have said is an unfair way to grade schools.
“We’re trying to fill a lot of needs. A lot of people are focused on this little bitty slice of the pie over here,” Taylor said.
The ‘slice of the pie’ however is arguably the most contentious part of the bill to some, including teacher groups and school district officials. The bill would create a so-called school choice system called education savings accounts that only special education students could qualify for. 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 have said the savings accounts are just another name for private school vouchers.
About 40 education and policy groups have signed a letter in opposition to House Bill 21 after education savings accounts were added to it, saying that the bill would now strip money from public education.
Taylor does not see it that way and said that his bill is meant to provide more educational opportunities for a small group of students who may not be getting the services they need in their public schools.
A majority of House members have made it clear they do not support school choice. 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.
Huberty, Taylor’s counterpart in the House, said that he has offered a compromise to Taylor’s additions that do not include a “voucher” system but instead, would establish a grant program that would be open to public schools to help educate children with autism and more after-school tutoring for special education students.
Taylor said he is amenable to Huberty’s idea but that not including education savings account is a deal breaker. If House Bill 21 fails, it could mean no extra money for public schools over the next two years and no school choice.
“There are 28 other states that have some kind of choice already. We keep hearing about the nose of the camel under the tent. Some of them have had it for 20, 30, or 40 years. It’s never exceeded 5 percent of their student population. The public school system is still there. In most cases, they’ve actually gotten better,” Taylor said.