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Time runs out for taxpayer-funded private school tuition bill as special session looms

By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Time runs out for taxpayer-funded private school tuition bill as special session looms” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A proposal that would allow Texas families to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools — a legislative priority for both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — is dead this weekend after the Texas House failed to advance it before a Saturday deadline.

Abbott has already suggested he’ll call a special session to ensure it becomes law.

Senate Bill 8, authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, passed the Senate in early April. However, it has not received a vote in the House Committee on Public Education. Bills must be approved in committee before being voted on in each respective chamber and the deadline for House committees to approve Senate bills is midnight, but the lower-chamber did not meet and neither will most committees.

Creighton didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

With the death of the bill, the House proves it is still a major hurdle for any legislation that would send taxpayer money to private schools. State Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, and chair of the education committee, drastically changed and limited the bill’s scope from the version passed in the Senate in an effort to get the votes needed in committee, but it seemingly wasn’t enough.

With already fierce opposition from the lower chamber, Abbott seemingly delivered the final blow for the bill when last week he voiced his disapproval of the House version of the bill, which significantly rolls back eligibility for the legislation’s proposed program. While the Senate’s bill wanted it to be available for most of Texas’ 5.5 million public schoolchildren, the House’s version would be for only certain groups of students, like those with disabilities or those who attended a campus that has recently gotten a failing grade in its state accountability rating.

Abbott, who has made the proposal, known as education savings accounts, the legislation his top cause this session and has traveled across the state advocating for it, said he would call lawmakers in for a special session if the House didn’t “expand the scope of school choice” this month.

“It begs the question of — with this threat — is this the legislation to move forward?” Buckley told the Tribune on Wednesday.

Things can change fast in the final days of a legislative session as leaders negotiate over an array of bills, so the fate of “school choice” — an umbrella term for a host of suite of policies that allow families to send their students to a school other than their assigned public school school — won’t be sealed until lawmakers leave town.

The legislation’s centerpiece was a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts, which parents who opt out of their local school district would be able to use to pay for private schools and other educational expenses with taxpayer dollars.

Some Republicans for decades have tried to pass voucher-like programs with no success — historically hitting a wall: the Texas House. But the bill’s supporters felt different this time around as they thought the theme of parental rights — something Republicans have seized since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns temporarily closed schools — would get them over the hump.

In the House, Democrats and rural Republicans have formed a coalition to defeat such programs, fearing that would siphon funds away from public schools as Texas gives schools money per student.

“Texans have been fighting against these voucher scams for decades,” said state Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin. “I’m proud of the bipartisan coalition that defeated vouchers this session. We will continue defending our public schools in any special sessions that are called.”

Already this session, the House took two key votes that signaled that they would not budge on vouchers. When the lower-chamber crafted their budget last month, they inserted an amendment that would prohibit state money from going to private schools. While it was largely symbolic it showed the lack of appetite for a voucher program.

Then last week, when Buckley tried to vote on SB 8 in committee without a public hearing, the House voted to not allow the public education committee to vote, claiming that he was trying to push a large bill without public oversight.

Buckley couldn’t seem to craft a proposal that would both pass the House and please Abbott. In an effort to sweeten the deal, his version would have eliminated the highly debated State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the STAAR program — and replace it with a new test. The legislation also removes the requirement that high schoolers need to pass an assessment to graduate.

Zeph Capo, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the debate over school vouchers this session took valuable time from other issues such as school funding and teacher pay. One of the biggest school funding legislation House Bill 100, authored by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, would infuse an extra $5 billion to school districts to increase school budgets and teacher raises, but it has been stuck in the Senate Committee on Education, chaired by Creighton.

“This was a lost session for public education,” Capo said. “Texas legislators let a generational surplus slip through their fingers while ignoring the generational threat of teachers streaming out of classrooms. All to chase a voucher scam Texans did not want.”

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