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House Speaker Dade Phelan join forces on property taxes. That could help push for school vouchers

House Speaker Dade Phelan, right, greets Gov. Greg Abbott before speaking to the Texas House at the start of the 2021 Texas Legislature.
Bob Daemmrich
House Speaker Dade Phelan, right, greets Gov. Greg Abbott before speaking to the Texas House at the start of the 2021 Texas Legislature.

Phelan announced the formation of a House committee that could set the tone in favor of vouchers ahead of an expected special session on education. The move comes weeks after Abbott sided with Phelan on a plan to lower property taxes.

This year’s regular legislative session ended with nothing to show for two of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities: property tax cuts and school vouchers. But an unusual alignment between Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan on how to trim property taxes might help carve a path forward on both fronts.

Phelan announced Monday the creation of a 15-member committee that will look into “educational opportunities” for Texas’ schoolchildren ahead of an expected special session to revisit the discussion on vouchers, which would let parents use taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools. The committee’s first task will be to file a report that lists the “menu of choices” related to learning currently available to students and proposes additional options. The report will be due on Aug. 11.

“With a special session on education matters all but certain, the select committee will begin working immediately to develop a workable roadmap for legislation in the House,” Phelan wrote in a tweet.

It remains to be seen whether Phelan’s new education committee will help the House move forward on school vouchers, which the lower chamber has opposed for decades.

Phelan’s announcement comes weeks after he and Abbott banded together in support of a business-friendly plan to lower property taxes.

As the regular session concluded with a stalemate between the House and the Senate over how to cut property taxes, Phelan announced a new House proposal backed by Abbott that would send $12.3 billion to school districts so they can lower their tax rates — an idea referred to as tax rate “compression.”

That marked a trench line between them and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has been staunch in his support of a measure that would put the same amount of money toward property tax cuts but would use some of it for compression and the rest to raise the state’s homestead exemption, which would lower the amount of a home’s value that can be taxed to pay for public schools.

During a special session on property taxes that immediately followed the regular session, Phelan refused to negotiate with the Senate, saying the upper chamber’s proposal did not align with the governor’s instructions to solely discuss a property tax cut measure that focused on compression. Abbott appears to have softened his stance and has been encouraging the House and Senate to strike a deal.

Abbott and Phelan’s partnership on property taxes might also yield benefits in the push for school vouchers.

Passing a voucher-like program was a top priority for Abbott, who toured the state advocating for the issue, and Patrick, who led the swift passage of the Texas Senate’s main voucher proposal. Phelan was mostly noncommittal on the question of school vouchers during the regular session.

But the proposal stagnated in the House, where Democrats and Republicans have often come together to kill any legislation that would establish a voucher-like program, which they see as a threat to the state’s public education system.

The Senate made one last effort to pass a voucher-like program by adding it to House Bill 100, the lower chamber’s $4.5 billion school finance bill. The proposal would have provided a modest influx of funds to schools for teacher raises and other operational expenses, but ultimately died in the final days of the regular session after the House would not compromise on school vouchers.

“I am truly sorry HB 100 did not pass, but in the end I believe students, teachers, and schools are better off with current law than they would be if we accept what the Senate is offering,” state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, wrote in a press release at the time. “The Governor likes to threaten special sessions, well my opinion is that I stand ready.”

It is unclear whether support from Phelan could change the tide for school vouchers in the House.

Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, who was named to the new committee, said Texans have been fighting off “voucher scams for decades” and is confident the House will continue to do so.

“I’m proud of the bipartisan coalition that defeated vouchers in the regular session,” he said. We will continue defending our public schools in any special sessions that are called.”

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, an organization that opposes vouchers, said the Legislature should not be tying school vouchers and funding for public schools together.

“The need to meaningfully support educators and educational institutions should stand on its own. In fact, the Legislature has a constitutional duty to do just that,” he said. “The Legislature doesn’t have a constitutional duty to fund private schools.”

Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, who chaired the education committee during the regular session, will lead the new committee. Buckley tried to pass a compromise on school vouchers by narrowing the program and tying it to HB 100, but the proposal died in committee after Abbott said he would veto it for its limited scope.

The committee will also be able to make recommendations on how to improve educational outcomes, modernize assessments and accountability systems and “meaningfully support educators.” Lawmakers left the regular session without giving schools money for teacher raises or to balance their budgets, despite having a historic $32.7 billion budget surplus in hand.

Mandy Drogin, campaign director of an education initiative for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, praised the selection of Buckley as the chair as he will pick up the work left over from the regular session.

“Now is the time to ensure that Texans have an education system that empowers parents with the freedom to select the best education for their child and provides all students with the highest-quality education possible,” Drogin said.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Brian Lopez | The Texas Tribune