After last-minute changes to scale back the measure, the Texas Senate passed a bill 18-13 on Thursday that would redirect state money to help low-income students and students with disabilities pay for private school tuition, among other non-public school expenses.
Senate Bill 3, which has emerged as one of the most divisive education measures this session, underwent major changes over the last few days as the author of the bill state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, tried to gather sufficient votes to pass it. More changes were presented to senators on Thursday, just hours before they considered the bill.
State Sens. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Kel Seliger of Amarillo, and Joan Huffman of Houston were the only Republicans who voted against the bill while Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville was the only Democrat to vote for it.
“There are just some students, for whatever reason, they’re not getting what they need and their parents recognize it,” Taylor said during the debate on Thursday. “This is actually empowering them.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made expanding school choice a priority this session, said that the bill would provide relief for students stuck in failing public schools.
“Making sure that every child has the opportunity to attend the school their parents believe is best for them is something the people of Texas elected us to do,” Patrick said in a statement.
Other lawmakers grilled Taylor on the lack of accountability under the bill. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said that private school students aren’t required to take the same type of state standardized tests as those in public schools; under SB 3, the public won’t know whether their tax dollars are resulting in better student performance, he said.
“If the public doesn’t exactly know how those students are performing … how can we know whether or not this experiment … is actually working?” he said.
Seliger also said that he feared that state money could go to support private schools that taught anti-American principles.
Taylor responded that the bill would require private schools to undergo a rigorous accreditation process that should weed out such types of instruction.
The latest changes to SB 3 would limit the eligibility requirements of students and appear to address concerns of lawmakers from rural areas where few private schools exist.
Students who live in counties with fewer than 285,000 people would no longer be eligible for state money through so-called savings accounts or tax credit scholarships unless residents vote in an election to approve eligibility. Education savings accounts would also no longer cover home schooling expenses; this comes as some home-schooling parents have opposed SB 3 because they feared falling under state regulations.
Other changes include:
• Limiting eligibility for savings accounts to low-income students.
• Reducing the annual cap for the tax credit scholarship from $100 million to $25 million.
• Limiting eligibility to students who attended a Texas public school for one year prior.
For a family of four making less than $78,000 per year, a student could receive $6,800 per year. The bill would still allow students with disabilities regardless of income to receive about $8,200 per year.
Taylor choked up while he discussed the special education provision Thursday. “These special needs kids have a purpose,” he said.
He said by narrowing the eligibility, the bill’s cost would be far less than the $330 million price tag of the original bill.
But according to an analysis from the liberal think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, public schools statewide would lose $173 million if 1 percent of students leave to accept a savings account or scholarship.
“Instead of shifting our tax dollars to private school tuition, the Legislature should remodel our outdated school finance system,” said the center’s executive director, Ann Beeson.
The bill will now be considered by the House, where leaders haven’t made school choice a priority.