- Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
In a surprise move on Thursday, Texas Senators slipped a school choice program into a House bill that would have injected $1.6 billion into the public education system and advanced the bill to the full Senate, which could consider it as early as Monday.
School choice has emerged as one of the most divisive education issues this legislative session and one that critics have said is a private school voucher system that would divert much-needed dollars from public schools.
This session, the House has indicated that it opposes school choice but supports funding schools at a higher level than the Senate says the state’s tight budget can handle. In a bargaining move by the Senate to push school choice, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and an issue supported by Gov. Greg Abbott, House members who oppose school choice at least have to consider the issue now.
“I know people are surprised right now, but I hope you’ll take a little moment to step back over the next day or so to realize the totality of what this bill means,” said Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who has tried carrying a large-scale school choice bill in the Senate, “and not throw out a whole bill because of one little part.”
Taylor was addressing several public school advocates who showed up to the Senate Education Committee hearing on Thursday to support House Bill 21, which was originally written to fix and update parts of the school funding formula. A few minutes into Taylor presenting the Senate changes to the HB 21, those supporters told Taylor they had to change their positions.
The Senate version of the bill would now create a school choice program called an education savings account for special education students. 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.
“Vouchers are a very bad bargain for students with disabilities,” said Patty Quinzi, with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, during the testimony. “Like all vouchers, special ed vouchers transfer funds to private entities that are not answerable to the public for quality education for their students.”
Taylor said the school choice program is about giving students opportunities for a quality education that they might not be getting in public schools.
“This is not about blowing up public education,” he said. Taylor vowed Thursday that he would not try to expand the school choice program to other populations of students this session.
The Senate version of HB 21 retains provisions to increase funding to educate bilingual students and increase the basic allotted money that school districts get per student from $5,140 to $5,350. The increase in the basic allotment would lower recapture payments — by $382 million statewide over the next two years — that property-wealthy school districts like Austin have to send to the state to be redistributed to property-poor districts.
The latest version of the bill also retains establishing extra funding for educating students with dyslexia and a hardship grant program for school districts that are facing funding cuts, but caps it at $159 million over the next two years.
Because of the tight budget, the latest version of the bill would probably inject less into the public education system than what the original version of HB 21 had proposed, Taylor said.