Texas Senate puts voucher-like program in school finance bill

Texas State Capitol (Nexstar Photo)
Texas State Capitol (Nexstar Photo)

AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — The Texas Senate Sunday night approved a bill that would both simplify the formulas for funding public schools and allow parents of kids with disabilities to take state money to leave the public system for private schools or homeschooling.

Senators voted 21-10 to approve House Bill 21, which the House originally intended to reform a complicated system for allocating money to public schools and to provide a funding boost for most public schools.

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, changed the bill to include a provision the House hates and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick very much wants: education savings accounts, which are state subsidies for parents who want to send their children with disabilities to private schools or need money for services to educate them at home.

“We’re trying to fill a lot of different needs in the bill and we’re trying to keep our costs down,” Taylor said while introducing the bill. The bill now goes back to the House, where it will hit a major roadblock: Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the bill’s House author, has said he won’t accept a version that includes education savings accounts.

Patrick promised the House an extra $530 million for public schools if the education savings account program becomes law; he has been unsuccessfully advocating for similar voucher-like programs for the last decade. The House had originally budgeted a $1.5 billion boost for public schools, and with the promise of $530 million, the Senate went from offering little extra funding for public schools to meeting the House partway.

If the House doesn’t approve HB 21 as amended by the Senate, public schools won’t get the extra $530 million, Taylor said. Under the Senate’s version of the bill, about 93 percent of school districts would see more revenue by 2019, with 7 percent seeing no change in revenue, he said.

Taylor stripped the bill of several of the original tweaks from the House that were intended to either simplify the funding formulas or allocate money to specific student groups — he said they would cost too much money.

At the same time, he packed HB 21 with provisions from other bills in the House and Senate — including $100 million in first-time facilities funding for charter schools, $20 million in grants for schools running programs for kids with autism, and a 15-member commission for long-term school finance reform.

Democrats challenged Taylor to explain why state money should be used to pay for private schools when they are not subject to state accountability, are not required to take all students, and are not subject to federal law when it comes to offering services for students with disabilities.

“We don’t want someone to be forced to take a student they’re not set up to handle,” Taylor said. He argued private schools are subject to a higher level of accountability, because parents can decide to leave a school that doesn’t fit them.

He said he didn’t understand why a small program that would affect just 5,000 students would stop legislators from approving half a billion dollars for public schools.

“This whole [education savings account] is a mouse and this elephant is just freaking out,” he said. “The whole world is coming to an end over this little bitty thing.”

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the school finance bill that simply crossed out the controversial education savings account.

Taylor succeeded in convincing rural conservative senators to vote for the Senate’s version of the bill, despite the fact that they generally have fewer private schools in their legislative districts and serve constituents who are skeptical of “private school choice.”

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said the 101 public school superintendents in his district dislike the education savings accounts, but like the provisions that would save small, rural schools money. Nichols ended up voting yes on the bill.

Public education advocates did an about face on the bill once they saw it included education savings accounts, with about 40 organizations sending letters to all Senate offices asking them to vote against it.

“In the middle of the night, the Texas Senate voted for a voucher scheme that will rob taxpayer money from public schools and give it to private schools,” said Ann Beeson, executive director of the left-leaning policy group the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “What started as a good school finance bill in the Texas House turned into a voucher bill that does not help remodel our state’s school finance system.”

Patrick on Wednesday listed the bill as one of the priorities he wants the House to pass. In exchange for a vote on HB 21, he promised to concur with the part of the House’s proposal for the school accountability system that would delay implementation of a controversial A-F grading system for schools and districts until 2019.

House Speaker Joe Straus shot back later that day, arguing that the Senate’s budget proposal reduced the state’s share of public education funding, leaving local property taxpayers with a heavier financial burden. “The House made a sincere effort to start fixing our school finance system, but the Senate is trying to derail that effort at the 11th hour,” he said.

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