The fight over “school choice” continued in the House on Tuesday, where the Public Education Committee considered several bills that would grant parents taxpayer money to enroll their children in private schools.
“School choice,” a.k.a vouchers, a.k.a Education Savings Accounts (ESAS,) have been a hot topic throughout the session, with Gov. Greg Abbott making it one of his top priorities. Since the Texas Legislature started in January, Gov. Abbott has been touting “educational freedom.” His agenda has included releasing parents from what he considers to be indoctrination of “woke” agendas in public schools.
Teachers unions and advocates for public education strongly oppose such policies, since public schools will suffer losses in funding if money is diverted for vouchers.
The school choice bill that has advanced furthest so far is, Senate Bill 8, which establishes that parents who take their children out of public schools would receive $8,000 to spend on private school tuition or home-schooling materials for each child. Lawmakers approved SB 8 in an 18-13 vote after a nearly 12-hour session.
Despite the Senate’s approval, the House isn’t as easily swayed on vouchers. On the same day SB8 was approved, the House rejected voucher programs, voting in favor of a budget amendment prohibiting any public funds from being used for private schooling. The amendment offered by Rep. Abel Herrero, passed the House 86 to 52.
“Nothing Magical About Private Schools”
On Tuesday, the Public Education Committee passed through Rep. Ken King’s HB 100, a massive school finance package that raises Texas’ basic allotment. The bill was passed 10-1, with only Rep. Harold Dutton voting against it.
Later the Committee discussed Rep. James Frank’s HB 4340, which establishes an ESA that would allow certain children to use public money to pursue educational alternatives to public schools and an insurance premium tax credit for contributions made for purposes of that program.
The bill would prioritize students who receive an ESA first by whether they qualify for reduced lunch and also by special education need – whilst not excluding students already enrolled in private schools.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, pointed out King’s bill was the most “audacious of all the bills,” since it would cost $500 million the first fiscal year, with a 20% increase each year after that.
“Strikes me as rich since public schools haven’t had a basic allotment increase since 2019,” said Hinojosa, stating that most kids were likely staying in the already severely underfunded public school system even if the House passed vouchers.
Rep. James Talarico, a former public school educator, who has been very vocal on his stance against vouchers, told Rep. Frank, that while his intentions with HB4340 were in good faith, he didn’t understand the route that was being taken – why not tackle the problem of parental engagement another way?
“There is nothing inherently better at private schools. There is nothing our public schools can’t do that private schools can’t if we give them that money,” said Rep. Talarico. “There’s nothing magical about private schools.”
Apart from channeling money away from the public education system, lawmakers pointed out the lack of accountability and inclusivity at private schools. A Texas Observer article said it best: “’School choice’ is deceptive,” because private schools “are highly selective.”
Rep. Alma Allen questioned Rep. Frank on the possible impact the voucher system would have on special education students.
“Almost all private schools handle some percentage of students with learning disadvantages,” said Rep. Frank, when asked if there were private schools for special education students.
Rep. Allen: “Are we not being inclusive then?”
Rep. Frank: “That is correct.”
Later on, while the House was listening to testimony from Laura Colangelo, Executive Director at Texas Private Schools Association, Rep. Talarico asked if private schools could turn their back on students with behavioral issues or low academic performance, to which ultimately the answer was yes.
“The admission process is designed to make sure the private school meets the needs of the child. That process would remain in place.” said Colangelo.
“So the answer is yes?” asked Talarico.
“Yes they could deny.”
Many private schools are not required to take disabled students, meaning that families that need additional support will most likely be left out of whatever benefits the vouchers provide and have to make due with dwindling resources at the remaining public schools.
In addition, transparency and accountability for taxpayer dollars being put into the ESA program has not been made clear.
Since private schools don’t receive federal money, they don’t have to comply with federal laws – except for the federal non-discrimination act. This means that if a private school were underperforming, the state could not intervene, as it did for example with Houston ISD.
According to Colangelo, as HB 4340 is currently written, who would intervene when a private school is not meeting the standards is an accreditation commission – in which taxpayers have no say.
“As a taxpayer I don’t elect the members who are accrediting, is that correct?” asked Talarico. “If we believe in Taxation with representation, which we believe in this country, there has to be some mechanism for elected officials to intervene, whether a parent stays or goes.”
As of the publication of this article, the House Committee was still listening to testimony on HB4340 and is unlikely to vote for ESA bills today. However, the vote should be interesting given the splits on the House budget amendment vote last week. Six education committee members voted for the Herrero amendment, four voted against and three abstained from voting.
This is a developing story.