‘School choice’ change to finance bill begins high stakes negotiations

Texas Capitol from east Austin (KXAN Photo)
Texas Capitol from east Austin (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — State lawmakers are running out of time. They’ve only got two more weeks to nail down a school finance plan. The Texas House passed a $1.6 billion revamp, but the Senate just shook things up.

Earlier this year, the Texas House-led by Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, banned public dollars for private schools. Instead, they approved a plan by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, to raise all public school money. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate will not fix school finance without some tax dollars in private hands.

Senate Education chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, put it in writing last week. Parents of students with special needs would get a little more than $8,300 a year.

“Frankly, we have some programs that specialize in certain special needs and they do an amazing job with the students that they have,” said Taylor.

“Was it a surprise that the Senate is trying to trade School Finance for school vouchers? No,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

He agrees with the House, critical of starting even a limited program for public dollars to leave the public system. He says more than 5 million public school children would lose out because of a benefit for a small number of families. The major sticking point with a school choice such as education savings accounts has been accountability: how do state officials ensure parents are spending money wisely and if their students are learning up to state standards?

Exter worries the school choice change will bring the entire bill down.

“Fully funded more equitable system, dies, because the Senate is playing politics with it,” said Exter.

Taylor says the new plan will pass the Senate and it will be up to the House to agree or not.

“If they want to go back home and explain to their district who’s losing 40 percent of their funding,” said Taylor, describing a state funding stream ending for some districts, “that they voted no on a bill that would take care of that because they didn’t want to give choice to a special-needs parent.”

Some of the local school districts watching this closely include Lake Travis, Blanco and Lago Vista.  Without a fix, a key funding stream will dry up next school year. Blanco ISD has already cut staff. Lago Vista ISD is preparing to take on more debt if the legislature does not figure out a solution.

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