After hours of heated debate surrounding House Bill 1, the school finance and voucher bill, the Texas House Public Education Committee voted 10-4 to advance the bill on Friday.
The latest proposal would establish $10,500 per ESA student that families could use to enroll in private school, but it would also raise the state’s allotment for each of the 5.5 million or so kids in the state’s independent school districts.
HB1, filed by Rep. Brad Buckley, attempts to address concerns by not only providing for ESAs but also including a $4,000 raise for teachers and requirements for ESA students to undergo the same testing as public school students. In previous failed bills, private schools receiving public funds were not held to the same level of accountability.
During Thursday’s heated debate, Josh Sanderson of the Equity Center, presented data suggesting that the proposed voucher plan is not financially sustainable.
According to the state’s Legislative Budget Board, the proposed education savings account program could cost the state more than $2 billion annually by 2028.
Rep. Buckley, chair of the Education Committee, defended his bill, claiming it is what is best for kids in Texas.
“I know why I’m here and that’s to make certain that every kid in Texas gets an opportunity and that parents remain at the forefront of having the most influence and control over the education of their kids,” he said. “That’s what this bill does.”
Meanwhile, Democrats and rural Republicans continued to band together on the issue. Rep. James Talarico labeled vouchers a “scam,” sparking tension with Rep. Buckley, who rebuked Talarico for his strong language. Talarico also pushed back on Buckley’s suggestion that HB1 is a compromise.
“Sometimes compromise is not a good thing,” Talarico continued. “The wealthy special interests that are pushing voucher schemes in this state… don’t believe in public education.”
Rep. Ken King, whose public education funding bill died in the regular session thanks to the political conflict surrounding vouchers, emphasized that Gov. Greg Abbott has interconnected “school finance, safety, everything tied to a voucher” in the agenda for the special session – a hostage situation.
“Republicans say unless you’re for vouchers, you can’t be Republican… I don’t believe that the people of House District 88 want [vouchers] because there’s no chance in hell any voucher helps one student in House District 88,” King said of his home district.
What makes this debate particularly intriguing is the personal stance of Chairman Buckley, who, despite a family tradition of public school involvement, supports the inclusion of voucher schemes alongside school finance issues in the bill. Former House Public Education Committee Chairs, including Dan Huberty and Jimmy Don Aycock, opposed similar voucher schemes, arguing that they divert crucial funds away from public schools.
According to an insider source, despite the bill making it out of committee it is likely to face a challenging battle on the House floor.
While there seem to be enough votes to defeat it, political observers warn of the unpredictable nature of floor debates. If the bill reaches the Senate, further complications could arise, with the possibility of amendments and additional conditions being added before returning to the House for a conference committee review.
Adding to the legislative drama, a chaotic afternoon turned into a late night in the Texas Senate, where controversial education and border security bills were unexpectedly passed. Three committees met and advanced the bills with little public notice or testimony, catching many by surprise. In a room typically reserved for news conferences, senators and staff crowded around a podium to push forward education bills and a border wall proposal.
As first reported by The Dallas Morning News, the Senate passed four proposals — all requested by Abbott.
- Senate Bill 1 would create a $500 million education savings account program allowing parents to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition
- Senate Bill 2 would give teachers pay raises.
- Senate Bill 3 would spend roughly $1.5 billion on the construction of a wall on Texas’ border with Mexico.
- Senate Bill 4 would empower state and local police to enforce immigration law.
This unexpected move by the Senate added pressure on the House to also sign off on these proposals and send them to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.