Texas Senate panel takes up far-reaching ‘school choice’ reform

AUSTIN (KXAN) – On Tuesday, key lawmakers will take up one of the most controversial measures this session, Senate Bill 3, a major “school choice” reform. The bill is one of the most far-reaching proposals in the country and controversy surrounds its idea of using tax dollars for private educational purposes.

With four children, the home of Leon and Lori Steward is a busy one. After home schooling for a few years, they decided to send their children to Hill Country Christian School because it had the culture they wanted.

“We picked up more from school than just math and English and science. We picked up a lot of things. We picked up relational values. We picked up how to get along with people,” said Leon Steward.

But that decision came with a price tag. School tuition is around $10,000 per year per student.

“It came down to a personal conviction that we’re going to do without as much money and allow them to go to the school that we wanted to,” said Steward.

They’re hopeful a measure from the state capitol could help. Senate Bill 3 creates “education savings accounts” where — depending on income — parents could get anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 of their taxes back to spend on their child’s education. Authored by Chair of the Senate Education Committee Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill aims to give more flexibility to Texas parents when choosing an education future.

It’s backed by leaders in the Texas Senate, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick,  and opposed by leaders in the House and the teacher organizations.

‘They’ve already made the decision and that’s right for them and they’re doing it right now and that’s great. But what we’re talking about is taking money out of the system that supports all children,” said  Mark Wiggins from the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Under the bill, if a student opts out of public school, the district would get a portion of the state money meant to educate that child. But that is only for the first year that student is outside public school.

But private school tuition is not the only thing this could pay for.  Supporters of this bill say “education savings accounts” are different from traditional “vouchers” because it allows the parents to spend money on more things. According to the Texas School Choice Coalition, SB 3 would allow parents to pay for tutoring or test prep, physical therapy, enrichment programs like Rosetta Stone, online classes, school supplies and college savings for tuition.

Senate Bill 3 would also create a tax credit for businesses to donate to a scholarship account.  The account would be used to pay for Texas students’ private school tuition.  The total amount of the fund would be $100 million dollars. To qualify, the family would need to be low-income, in foster care, have a parent in the military or a student with a disability.

Wiggins says all of these tax dollars are needed in a school finance system that the Texas Supreme Court said was legal but “byzantine.”

“It’s offensive to suggest that you’re going to improve the public school system by taking resources out of it,” said Wiggins.

Lawmakers will take it up this week, and Steward understands debating student’s futures is one of the toughest to have.

“You’re talking about someone’s prized possession with their children,” said Steward.

The Senate Committee on Education will hear public testimony on SB 3 at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 21.

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