On Thursday, Rep. Brad Buckley, the House’s top education policymaker reiterated the stance held by House Speaker Dade Phelan that no House voucher bill will pass until Gov. Greg Abbott adds public education funding to the special session agenda.
Alongside this statement, the House unveiled HB1, a comprehensive education bill aiming to find compromise on various educational matters. However, for staunch defenders of public education, this proposed legislation offers only limited victories.
The bill introduces a handful of progressive measures, but it also opens a Pandora’s box with its inclusion of vouchers, raising fears of an irreversible transformation in the Texas education landscape. Especially, when many Texans have been so vocal in their stance against vouchers.
“It astonishes me how so many Texans are against vouchers, but our Governor, Lt. Governor, and Senate are more worried about appeasing their wealthy campaign donors who want vouchers for obvious reasons. So much for what the public wants as opposed to the wealthy and politically connected,” Kennedale ISD Superintendent Chad Gee said.
A Bill in Search of “Compromise”
A significant portion of the bill’s opening sections is dedicated to increasing teacher compensation and support policies, emphasizing teacher training and support for Special Education (SpEd) teacher recruitment.
The bill also introduces several changes to school finance formulas, such as an increase in the basic allotment, with most of the additional funds earmarked for teacher pay. Another noteworthy change involves tying the basic allotment to inflation via the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Addressing a long-standing issue, the bill modernizes the SpEd formula, shifting from place-based funding to intensity-of-services-based funding.
The voucher aspect of the House bill makes eligibility for vouchers, or Education Savings Account (ESAs), universal, with a student cap of 25,000 for the first year due to budget constraints. However, eligibility could be revoked if a student’s performance on the STAAR test drops below their pre-voucher levels. Additionally, the program is set to expire after three school years, requiring future legislative renewal.
The House bill has efforts that go in the right direction for public education, however it lets pro-voucher advocates get a foot in the door. Meaning they will continue to “move the goal post” until funding for public education is all dried up.
“Until public funding for education is completely gone, the backers of this stuff will not stop,” said Charles Siler, former pro-voucher lobbyist for Goldwater Institute in Arizona and the co-founder of Agave Strategies, a political consulting firm.
“We already have an incredibly expensive voucher program in Arizona and now they’re just talking about how much more money they can award per student – the ratchet will always continue.”
Vouchers would inevitably defund public education, and don’t give public schools an even playing field.
“There is concern about the unfair nature that public dollars will be used to fund private schools. Our community does not fear educational competition or is against parents’ right to choose; the issue is the unfair playing field established by our state legislature,” said Pearland ISD Superintendent Berger.
Public schools are held responsible for addressing student achievement, ensuring school safety, and adhering to specific curriculum standards set by the state. In contrast, private schools do not face the same level of accountability to state standards. In addition, in a state where the money follows the child, students dropping out of public schools would inevitably affect an already scarce budget.
“Success is not free, and if state funding is not increased and vouchers go into effect, hard decisions will have to be made to ensure that academic support is in place,” Berger stated.
The Governor is putting immense pressure to broker a deal in the House, which has a history of opposing vouchers, thanks to Democrats and rural Republicans standing together. The outlook of these efforts is similar to the regular session where school funding was held hostage to vouchers. For one to pass, the other must pass as well.
However, House Democrats have made it clear that they are once again prepared to oppose any form of school voucher program. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who leads the House Democratic Caucus, firmly stated to reporters that their stance is unequivocal: “very clear: no vouchers and no deals.”
It now remains to be seen what Gov. Abbott’s response to HB1 will be.