Senate panel advances school finance, ‘private school choice’ bills

July 21, 2017
Nick Wagner
Senate education chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, center, speaks during a Capitol hearing on Senate Bill 2 on Friday. NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Senate Education Committee on Friday sent to the full chamber two bills that address many of the major education-related issues on the special session agenda, including school finance and “private school choice.”

Senate Bill 2, filed by Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, drew eight hours of public testimony, much of which was in opposition because of a provision in the bill that critics have compared to private school vouchers.

“Do not use the backs of these very special children as a pawn for your political schemes,” said Kara DeRocha, a Houston resident whose child is in special education.

SB 2 passed 8-2, with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville the only Democrat voting for it.

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Under the bill, public school students with disabilities wanting to enroll in private school can receive up to $10,000 in tax credit scholarships each year to help pay for tuition.

Public school students would receive some money under the bill, too — up to $500 in education assistance, increasing 5 percent each year, to pay for supplies, tutoring and child care among other expenses.

The tax credit scholarship and education assistance program would be funded by donations from insurance companies which would in turn receive tax credits, capped at $75 million per year.

Critics of the bill said on Friday the scholarships wouldn’t guarantee that students receive a better education because private schools don’t have to follow the same state accountability standards or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that public schools must follow. They also said that public schools should be funded adequately before passing such a bill.

Taylor said that scholarships would help about 6,000 students and the education assistance program would help 22,000 public school students.

“Most of the parents you talk to who have special needs kids are very happy with their public school system but there are some who have not had a positive experience and their child is not getting the most that they can get and those are the ones that we’re concerned with,” Taylor said.

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Many private school officials spoke in favor of the bill, saying they monitor the progress of their students with disabilities, and test them and that the scholarships would cover tuition at their schools.

Some senators on the panel said parents should have the ultimate say in their children’s education and the bill actually injects more money into the public education system.

The bill would divert $270 million into public schools from Texas Health and Human Services through deferred payments to Medicaid. The money would go toward other outstanding education issues not addressed in the regular session that have been bundled into SB 2, including construction funding for charter schools and fast-growth school districts and a hardship grant program for about 200 school districts slated to lose an estimated $200 million in Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction.

Also on Friday, the committee unanimously approved SB 16 that would create a commission to study and make recommendations to improve the way the state funds public schools. The Texas Supreme Court last year ruled that the state’s school finance system was minimally constitutional and that the system could be vastly improved to make it more equitable for students.