The fight for and against school vouchers is heating up ahead of a budget vote scheduled for Thursday. On the table is an amendment to prevent Governor Greg Abbott’s proposed school voucher plan, dubbed an Education Savings Account (ESA).
The Texas state budget is massive, covering $300 billion over the next two years. This would include $5 billion for public schools. The cost of Abbott’s proposed voucher program, which would allow parents to spend $8,000 of taxpayer money on private, usually religious, schools, would be roughly $1 billion for the first three years.
Between the price tag and the unpopularity of the bill, the voucher program looks to be in trouble despite the support of both Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. An amendment filed by State Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) would prohibit the state from spending any money on the voucher system, effectively killing it for the next two years if it was accepted. The amendment has bipartisan support thanks to rural Texas Republicans who fear the impact the voucher ESAs would have on smaller school districts.
The program is universally opposed by public school organizations. The Texas Association of School Boards has even paid for online advertisements promoting Herrero’s initiative, which is unusual for a mere amendment. Their ads claim that the ESA system would give private schools massive infusions of public money with little accountability. So far, Republicans have been short with assertions that schools receiving money will receive oversight regarding things like discriminatory practices and price gouging.
State Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Lake Worth) believes that the House has 100 votes to support the amendment, which would pass the lower chamber. However, ultimately the final budget would have to pass both houses and be signed by Governor Greg Abbott, who could line-item veto the bill even if it does make it into the ultimate bill. However, bipartisan support against vouchers could take the wind out of the sails for the movement, which has been pushed by far-right ideologues and funded with oil money.
Also on the table are $3 billion for increased teacher retirement benefits and an expansion of the child allotment for funding. The latter is a prime reason that public school advocates opposed the voucher program. Texas schools receive money per student enrolled, currently $6,160. If a student leaves, then the school loses that money. Just ten students transferring to a private school could cost a school a job, and some 25,000 students are expected to transfer if the voucher system becomes law.
Proponents of the voucher system have tried to woo rural Republicans by offering a $10,000 stipend per student for school districts with less than 20,000 enrollment, but it would expire after two years. Larger school districts will not receive any supplemental income to account for the loss.
A proposed amendment would increase the allotment by $50 per student. Though small, the increase can have significant impact on staffing and food service costs for smaller districts.