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Republican-backed education savings account bill goes before a Senate committee this week

 The 88th Legislature convenes on the first day of the legislative session at the state Capitol on Jan. 10, 2023.
Renee Dominguez
The 88th Legislature convenes on the first day of the legislative session at the state Capitol on Jan. 10, 2023.

Texans who are invested in or concerned about the possibility of lawmakers diverting public education dollars to private schools could get some more information this week.

Republican state leaders — including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick — are pushing for a program that would allow families to send their kids to private school with public funding.

This concept, often called school vouchers, has never gained enough traction in Texas to be signed into law. But this session lawmakers in favor of the idea are taking another stab at it. Historically, that’s been resisted by Democrats and rural Republicans who say such a move would undermine public schools.

Senate Bill 8, which was introduced earlier this month, creates education savings accounts, which would give families up to $8,000 to use for private school tuition and school related other expenses. This bill will be discussed in committee this week.

» MORE: What’s at stake in the Texas school voucher debate

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, who covers the statehouse for the Texas Newsroom, said not every family is eligible for the money.

“Eligible children means those who are currently enrolled in a public school,” he said. “So a kid in a private school right now would not qualify for this program.”

Martínez-Beltrán said the creation of education savings accounts might be more appealing to lawmakers who have traditionally opposed vouchers. This is in part because the money can be used for expenses beyond tuition, he said.

If you have a kid, you might know that textbooks tend to be expensive; uniforms tend to be expensive. So that money can be used for that,” he said. “I do think it’s also important to be frank about this whole thing, because when we talk about $8,000, some people might say, wow, that’s a lot of money. But the tuition in private schools tends to be way higher than $8,000. So this amount that the state would be giving kids might not even cover for the whole tuition.”

Despite that, this initiative could have an impact on how much funding public schools receive. Public schools in Texas are funded based on student attendance, so if students leave a district, that district loses money. However, Martínez-Beltrán said this bill has a temporary mechanism to keep funding certain schools after students leave.

“Under the measure, school districts with under 20,000 students would receive $10,000 per kid who leaves to a private school, and this will happen for the first two years,” he said. “It seems like GOP leadership is betting on this cash to create a miracle and flip some of these Republicans who have opposed this in the past.”

Abbott has also been visiting towns represented by Republicans who oppose vouchers.

“The governor has been going around the state, going to these towns where some of these Republicans that have opposed vouchers live. And he has hosted what he calls parent empowerment nights. And these events take place in private schools, many of them Christian schools, and serve as a rally,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “It has influenced some of these Republicans who have opposed vouchers in the past. And now we’re seeing some of them making appearances at this event and even saying that they will support the vouchers bill this time around.”

This week, during the committee hearings, the public will get to hear from the bill’s sponsor as well as the opposition, Martínez-Beltrán said. The bill was put forward by Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Republican who represents Conroe.

“We know that we expect to be able to go through some robust discussions this week and in the next few months,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “Those discussions will likely lead to amendments. So there’s going to be more that we have to learn throughout the next few weeks.”

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Sarah Asch