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School voucher critics remain largely unswayed during Texas House hearing

By Maia Pandey, The Texas Tribune

School voucher critics remain largely unswayed during Texas House hearing” 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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In the first Texas House hearing on school vouchers since May, opponents in the lower chamber remained critical of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top legislative priority — and ultimately expressed frustration with the governor’s insistence to tie public education funding with a voucher program, which has brought lawmakers back to Austin for a rare fourth special session this year.

While the Senate gave final approval to its priority voucher bill within the first week of last month’s special session, the House’s counterproposal — authored by Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen — stagnated without a committee hearing throughout the third special session. A coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans in the House have long blocked efforts to advance a voucher proposal. No voucher-related bills have made it to the House floor for a full vote in recent history.

Buckley’s revised bill, which the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity & Enrichment took up Thursday, included several concessions to try to sway voucher skeptics in the House, particularly increased public school funding and accountability measures that would require voucher recipients to take standardized tests to keep their spots in the program. Buckley did not move to vote on the bill Thursday night, but left it pending and said the committee would take up pending bills Friday.

“I know why I’m here and that’s to make certain that every kid in Texas gets an opportunity and that parents remain at the forefront of having the most influence and control over the education of their kids,” he said. “That’s what this bill does.”

Still, the committee’s Democratic and Republican voucher opponents alike seemed unconvinced by the new House Bill 1, which would create education savings accounts, a voucher-type program that would give families taxpayer dollars to help pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses.

Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, whose public education funding bill in the regular session fizzled amid the political faceoff over vouchers, said Abbott has made “school finance, safety, everything tied to a voucher” in his special session agenda.

“Republicans say unless you’re for vouchers, you can’t be Republican… I don’t believe that the people of House District 88 want [vouchers] because there’s no chance in hell any voucher helps one student in House District 88,” King said of his home district.

If vouchers don’t pass after this special session, Abbott has promised to launch primary campaigns against the two dozen Republicans leaning against vouchers, including King.

Though Abbott initially said he would not add public education funding to his special session call until vouchers passed, he expanded the agenda last month and announced a voucher deal had been reached with House leaders. However, they declined to confirm that a deal was made.

Some lawmakers expressed frustration Thursday at returning for a second consecutive special session to relitigate an issue that failed to pass during the regular legislative session earlier this year.

Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, another Republican holdout on school vouchers, said he was frustrated by voucher negotiations holding public education funding “hostage.”

Bell didn’t indicate how he planned to vote on education savings accounts, but he said his vote will ultimately be “in the best interest” of his home district and its students.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said even if vouchers pass, the state will still need to improve its public education system. Though he said he did not agree with creating any kind of voucher program in August, Dutton has broken from his party in the past, most recently as the only Democrat to abstain from voting in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial.

“I struggle with this because…this has gotten really political,” Dutton said of vouchers. “It’s not about students, it’s not about parents, it’s not about school districts — it’s about Abbott. It’s about the governor, so that’s a failing proposition as far as I’m concerned.”

Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, who has previously indicated she’s open to a voucher compromise that includes public school funding, did not state a position on the bill Thursday but stressed the need for increased public education support.

“What do I say to that rural teacher making $35,000 who can’t pay their rent or pay their bills? … How do I deal with our African American children who are doing worse in public schools?” Gervin-Hawkins said. “I believe we’re at a pivotal time as it relates to education. What can we do to turn this thing around and truly reimagine education as a whole?”

Gervin-Hawkins, who cofounded a San Antonio charter school, also acknowledged concerns that a voucher program may lead to underfunding and eventual closure of public schools. She said she was interested in learning more about why students leave public schools for charter, private and home schools. HB 1 includes an increase from $60 million to $108 million in funding for charter schools facilities starting in the 2025-26 school year.

Unlike Gervin-Hawkins, her fellow Democrats James Talarico and Gina Hinojosa, both from Austin, made clear they are not open to a compromise on a voucher bill, even if it includes public education funding.

“As a former Texas educator, I think I speak for thousands of Texas teachers, Texas parents, Texas students that I would rather slowly starve than be complicit in the death of public education in the state,” Talarico said.

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