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‘This bill is dead’ — private school vouchers face a roadblock in the Texas House with days left

Gabriel C. Pérez

Governor Greg Abbott and other supporters of private school vouchers are struggling to make headway in the Texas House, where many lawmakers remain skeptical of a program that would give tax dollars to private and homeschool students.

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For more than a decade, Dan Huberty has been thinking about public education in Texas. He's noticed some problems.

"I can point to very specific things that show that we are underfunding certain parts of our education system, and special education is one of those things," Huberty said.

The Harris County Republican retired from the Texas House in January, but Huberty spent his last few years in office spearheading the creation of the Texas Commission on Special Education Funding.

"My goal was to fix the current special education funding mechanisms that are deficient in the current school finance system as we know it today," he explained.

Altogether, the commission found the state underfunds special ed in the public school system by about $2 billion dollars each year.

The bipartisan commission's final report came out in December of last year, and it suggested a major overhaul of how Texas funds special ed in public schools. It also narrowly recommended, in a 4 to 3 vote, that the Legislature "consider" education savings accounts, or ESAs, a type of private school voucher that Governor Abbott's been pushing for. Huberty wasn't happy about that.

"Let’s not penalize the entire system, let’s not say ‘The system’s broken, we have failing schools, and we’re not willing to appropriately fund them,'" he said. "Put the money where it belongs."

State Senators already passed Senate Bill 1, which focuses on private school subsidies. The Senate separated public school funding into Senate Bill 2, but SB2 does not include long-awaited fixes to the special education system.

Shortly after the passage of SB1, House lawmakers unveiled House Bill 1, which includes private school ESAs and more public school funding. It also addresses special education.

"They do fully fund the Special Education Commission report," Huberty said. "They do put a whole bunch of more money into the system. I’ve seen the economics and the runs on them, and they’re very, very good for schools."

But, he warned, ESAs could sink the bill.

House Republican Jacey Jetton was also on the special ed commission, and he's involved in HB 1 negotiations.

Asked if there's enough support in the House for an ESA program, Jetton said "It’s definitely a challenge," but "everything is on the table" when it comes to getting the program passed.

"We believe that this is not a zero-sum game, that we can have excellent public education and also have excellent private schools and homeschools," Jetton said.

But even among House Republicans who want ESAs, like Representative Steve Toth, HB1 is controversial. In part, that's because it currently would require private school students to take the STAAR test. In a video on social media, Toth blasted the legislation.

"This bill is dead," Toth said.

A spokesperson for the Governor said Abbott told House Speaker Dade Phelan that HB1 "differs from what the Governor's office had negotiated with the House's leadership team," and conversations are ongoing.

Abbott has said that teacher pay raises and other funding for public schools can wait until an ESA program is approved by both chambers.

Josh Cowen is a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. The prominent voucher critic said the Governor's approach is similar to tactics used in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, which are among the more than two dozen states that now provide private school subsidies.

"That linking of other public school services — holding it hostage, as it were, both teacher pay raises and other funding categories — is absolutely part of the new playbook," Cowen said.

Many public school advocates oppose any bill that includes an ESA program, even if it increases funding for the public system.

Andrea Chevalier is with the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education. The organization represents special ed directors from across the public system.

"The conversations that we’ve been having with our members is that there’s no deal that we would be willing to make," Chevalier said.

Chevalier likes most of what HB1 does for public schools. But she's wary of any program that could reduce enrollment. Districts have fixed costs that don't go away just because individual students leave.

"We’re already underfunded in special education," she said. "And when those kids take those funds with them somewhere else, we have less and less to work with, and we can do less things for kids."

For now, HB1 faces opposition from many critics and some prominent supporters of private school vouchers. And lawmakers don't have much time left. The special session ends on Tuesday, November 7.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Dominic Anthony Walsh, HPM