Texas Senate resurrects school finance, ‘school choice’ bill

House Bill 21, the school finance and school choice bill that was declared dead earlier this week, might have been resurrected.

Without much discussion, the Texas Senate on Saturday appointed senators to a conference committee to hash out differences in the bill with members of the House, who were appointed on Wednesday. Without a compromise by midnight Saturday, HB 21 is dead — again.

Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, later said that the conference committee is aimed at giving the House more time to agree to the Senate changes, specifically the one that would implement a so-called school choice system for special education students, which the House has ardently opposed. Taylor said that the odds of the House and Senate reaching a compromise is still “slim to none.”

“It’s a package of benefits and they all go together,” Taylor said. “We have a package and we’re sticking with that. Let’s give it more time for that to sink in. We’re starting to hear from some districts saying hey wait, that’s a lot of money for us.”

House Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, told the American-Statesman as recently as Friday afternoon that he believed HB 21 was dead. When he announced Saturday’s development to the rest of the House, members applauded.

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared the bill dead because the House, in a vote, recommended that the House in conference committee fight against implementing a school choice system called education savings accounts for special education students. Under the savings accounts system, about $8,200 per-student funding would be redirected from a public school into an education savings account that a special education student leaving a public school could use on private school tuition or other non-public educational expenses.

The original bill as Huberty proposed and passed in the House would have pumped at least $1.6 billion into the public education system. Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, stripped the funding down to $530 million, removed other parts of the bill and added the education savings accounts.

Proponents of the savings accounts say that they give a small number of students a way out of failing public schools and would drive competition in the education system and create better schools. Critics say that the accounts have not improved student performance in other states and would strip money from cash-strapped public schools.

House members assigned to the conference committee are Huberty and Reps. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston; Ken King, R-Canadian; Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio; and Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin. The senators are Taylor; Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville; Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola; and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

All of the senators assigned to the committee have voted in favor of private school choice this session.

Other parts of HB 21 include:

• $150 million hardship grant for about 150 school districts that will lose so-called Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction funding in September. Without some relief, some of those school districts will close, King has said.

• More funding for school district construction and establish such funding for the first time for charter schools.

• Funding for schools to educate students with dyslexia.

• $20 million grant program for public schools to educate students with autism in third grade and lower.

• A state commission to study and make recommendations on how to improve the school finance system.

Although not part of the bill, the Senate has said that if the House agrees to HB 21, it would move back implementation of the unpopular A-F accountability system to 2019.

The Austin school district would not receive any extra funding from HB 21; Round Rock would receive about $3 million over the next two years; and Pflugerville would receive about $800,000 over the next two years. Those school districts would have received millions more under a previous version of the bill.

The Legislature on Saturday is expected to approve the state budget for the next two years that will not increase funding to public schools, except for some program areas.

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