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School choice and Abbott’s pre-K program are losers in House budget

Given the tight budget cycle and no prospects of passing a large-scale school finance fix, the House budget — approved Friday — will probably be as good as it will get for public school funding this session.

The House not only signed off on $1.5 billion more in funding for public schools, contingent upon two additional pieces of legislation passing, but members also signaled a desire to quash efforts to establish a school choice program, also referred to as private school voucher system, in the state.

No appetite for school choice

Among the first amendments to be approved during the marathon budget debate was one by State Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, which would prohibit state money to be used to fund school choice programs, like education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships. Both programs have been proposed in Senate Bill 3, which was approved by the Senate last week, and they would redirect some state money to help students pay for private school tuition, among other non-public education expenses.

Herrero’s amendment passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, including many Republicans from rural districts whose support would have been vital to passing a school choice bill this session. School choice programs would have limited effects on rural parts of Texas because most private schools are in urban areas, legislators have said.

Some home schooling families, prominent in rural areas, have also opposed school choice programs because they feared that they would be regulated more by the state.

School choice has emerged as one of the most divisive education topics this legislative session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made it a priority this session, touting it as the “civil rights issue of our time” — a way to give parents more say in their children’s education and a way out of failing public schools.

Even so, passing a school choice bill out of the Senate last week was an uphill struggle. The author of SB 3, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, had to scale back the school choice programs proposed in his measure before it was voted on in the chamber.

The House has long indicated that it hasn’t been as warm to the idea of school choice as the Senate.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston and chair of the House Public Education Committee, said in February that such a measure would be considered “dead” in the House. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has agreed.

Opponents of school choice have said it would further bleed money from cash-strapped public schools and would not improve the academic performance of low-income children.

“Unlike the Senate majority, the House wants to increase funding for public schools and not siphon money away for vouchers. TSTA polling indicates the House is in step with most Texas voters,” said Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association.

Randan Steinhauser with Texans for Education Opportunity, which helped craft SB 3, said school choice advocates will hold House members who voted for Herrero’s amendment “accountable.”

“It’s our job to ensure that families in Texas understand which members support them having access to additional education opportunities, and which members will stand in the way of those opportunities,” she said.

More money for public schools

Part of the House budget approved early Friday includes a $1.5 billion boost to public education on top of what the Senate has appropriated.

The money, however, is contingent upon legislation passing that defers $1.9 billion in payments to school districts from the Foundation School Program, the pot of money that funds public schools, from fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2020.

The $1.5 billion increase is also contingent upon House Bill 21, filed by Huberty, passing. The bill, which awaits a House vote, would increase the basic allotment that school districts get per student from $5,140 to $5,350, and make other tweaks to the school finance formula. HB 21 would also create a $200 million “hardship provision grant” that would help school districts struggling with current levels of funding.

The House budget also would put about $200 million more into TRSCare, retired teacher heath care, than the Senate version of the budget.

No pre-K grant program

The House did not restore funding to Gov. Greg Abbott’s high-quality prekindergarten grant program. House appropriators have funding for it caught up in Article XI, the so-called “wish list” section of the budget that many proposals never escape from.

The program, Abbott’s hallmark legislation from last session, doled out $118 million to about half of the state’s school districts this year and last year to help them implement high-quality standards in pre-K classrooms.

Both the House and Senate have defunded the program in their budgets. The House puts some of the money into $147 million of one-time supplemental pre-K funding to all school districts over the next biennium. The Senate establishes a private-public partnership program intended to improve the quality of pre-K through “kindergarten readiness tools, developmental tools, rubrics, and best practice guides.”

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, filed an amendment that would have redirected $578 million from border security to prekindergarten, but it failed Thursday.

The House would appropriate about $1.6 billion for half-day prekindergarten on top of the $147 million in supplemental funding.

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