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Texas House committee to hold surprise vote on school voucher bill

The House Chamber for the Texas State House of Representatives inside the Texas State Capitol at the start of the 2021 Special Legislative Session in Austin, TX on July 8, 2021. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The House Chamber for the Texas State House of Representatives inside the Texas State Capitol at the start of the 2021 Special Legislative Session in Austin, TX on July 8, 2021. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

Public education advocates began sounding the alarm Tuesday night that state lawmakers were planning to consider a school voucher bill with little notice. The Texas House Public Education Committee is expected to vote Wednesday on Senate Bill 8.

“At the same time this Legislature is hammering on parental empowerment, they are trying to sneak in a massive private school coupon under the noses of the vast majority of parents who love their kids' public school,” Texas American Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo said in an emailed statement.

School voucher programs give families state money to send their kids outside of the public school system. While some GOP lawmakers have tried to pass this type of legislation in previous legislative sessions, Democrats and rural Republicans have blocked the measures.

But this year, Gov. Greg Abbott has joined Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in vocally advocating for school vouchers in the form of education savings accounts. Abbott has toured the state to garner support for the legislation and Patrick touted the bill’s passage in the Texas Senate, which he presides over.

“I have always believed in our public school system of over 8,000 campuses,” Patrick said in a statement last month. “Many schools are great, most are good, but we also have those that are failing our students. That is why we need school choice for parents who want options other than their failing public school.”

The Texas Senate approved SB 8 in April and sent it to the House, where it’s been expected to face more opposition. State representatives voted 86-52 last month to include an amendment in the House state budget proposal to prohibit the use of state funds for school voucher programs.

The version of the bill state Senators okayed would give families $8,000 in taxpayer money to cover the cost of things such as tuition and fees for private school, a private tutor, uniforms and textbooks.

The bill also sought to sweeten the deal for rural lawmakers by promising $10,000 dollars in state funding for every student who leaves a district with less than 20,000 students to use a school voucher instead. Districts would get that money for five years. All told, the education savings account program the Texas Senate approved is projected to cost more than $500 million over the next two years.

The version of SB 8 the House Public Education Committee is expected to vote on has an even higher price tag of $800 million, according to a bill summary KUT obtained. The committee will decide whether to advance an 80-page committee substitute. Lawmakers use a committee substitute when they want to make significant changes to a bill.

What’s in the new version of SB 8?

Let’s start with the eligibility requirements laid out in the committee substitute for Senate Bill 8. The House version of the bill has more restrictions on who can qualify for an education savings account.

Two groups of students who would be eligible are those who are economically disadvantaged or have a disability. Students are also eligible if they attend a school that received a D or F rating from the Texas Education Agency "for one of the two most recent school years." Students with a sibling in the education savings account program would also qualify.

While the original version of SB 8 would give all students the same sum of money for an education savings account, the committee substitute for the bill is more varied. Low-income students and students with disabilities, for example, would receive $9,000 to attend nonpublic schools. Students with disabilities who are also low-income would receive at least $10,500. All other eligible students would receive $7,500 in an education savings account.

Capo, with Texas AFT, blasted the House Public Education committee for voting on the measure without taking public testimony.

“This committee is about to vote on a brand new, 80-page bill they haven't read and haven't heard a single piece of testimony on. This feels desperate and frenzied — the worst circumstances under which to make public policy,” he said.

The committee substitute for SB 8 also includes provisions to phase out and replace the State Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test by the 2027-2028 school year.

This is a developing story. 

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Becky Fogel is the newscast host and producer for “Texas Standard.” She came to the show from Science Friday in New York where she produced segments on zombie microbiomes and sneaker technology. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco and she’s happy to be back in the great state of Texas.