Texas senator introduces highly-anticipated school choice bill

School Choice Rally at the Texas State Capitol on Jan. 24, 2017. (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)
School Choice Rally at the Texas State Capitol on Jan. 24, 2017. (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

AUSTIN (NEXSTAR) — Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and State Senator Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, rolled out Senate Bill 3 Monday afternoon, which would use tax dollars to help parents pay for private, religious or home school options.

“What we are doing is providing choice for parents who are not wealthy enough to choose a school for their child,” Patrick said during Monday’s press conference. “We are providing choice for students trapped in failing schools that have been failing forever.”

Senate Bill 3 creates an Education Savings Account (ESA) program and a Tax Credit Scholarship.

Under the program, each eligible student in Texas would be able to receive a calculated dollar amount that is based on family income levels. The family could then use that money to cover approved education-related expenses like private school tuition, licensed tutors, education materials, or public school.

Children would be eligible for ESA, according to Sen. Taylor, if they attended public school the year prior or are entering Kindergarten or 1st grade for the first time.

Children would be eligible to participate in the Tax Credit Scholarship program if they “are in a household with an income not greater than 200 percent of the threshold for free and reduced lunch program, in foster care, institutional care, or are a child of a military family.”

Taylor adds that children are also eligible for the Tax Credit Scholarship program if they attended public school the year prior, are entering Kindergarten or 1st grade for the first time, are the sibling of an eligible student, or attend a nonpublic school and qualify as a student who is not counted toward a public school’s average daily attendance during the year in which the student receives the scholarship.

“If Texas wants to remain economically sound,” Taylor said, “the type of state that grows by 80,000 kids each year, then we need to pass school choice legislation.”

The problem, however, according to Patrick is that some lawmakers in the Texas House have already expressed concern over passing a school choice bill.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist with The Association of Texas Professional Educators says there is less accountability in Senate Bill 3 compared to the one Patrick rolled out last session.

“I actually feel like the program they are rolling out this year has more of the issues that House members had problems with last year,” Exter said. “There’s less accountability in this bill even than there was in last year’s bill. There’s more opportunity for waste fraud or abuse in this bill than there was in last year’s bill.”

Exter says members of the House have said repeatedly that they do not want to take tax payer funding and divert them into a nonpublic, unaccountable system.

“It is not necessarily being targeted towards lower socio-economic students or special education students or anything like that,” Exter said. “It is really just anybody that wants to just come get this debit card and spend the state’s money on an unaccountable nonpublic program.”

Last legislative session the Texas Senate passed a similar voucher plan, but the bill died in the house. Patrick said on Monday that he hopes his colleagues in the house will give Senate Bill 3 “a fair shot” and “a vote” this session.

Gov. Greg Abbott said last week that he will sign off on any school choice bill that reaches his desk.

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