As the clock ticks down on the third special legislative session, there is a political standoff in the Texas Capitol over a private school voucher program.
Gov. Greg Abbott made voucher-like legislation a priority for this special session and made it clear something had to pass, be it the “hard way or the easy way.” The Texas Senate went straight to work and filed Senate Bill 1, which would allow families to access $8,000 of Taxpayer money to pay for private schools, among other educational expenses.
More reluctantly, the House followed suit and filed its version of the voucher bill, however, their proposal did not meet Abbott’s standards. In addition, the bill most likely doesn’t have the votes to ever make it to the desk of the Governor, since House rural Republicans and Democrats have been historically opposed to vouchers.
“I think that a bill with an ESA in it is a tight vote in the House, and I think it can kind of go either way,” said Rep. Brad Buckley, who authored the bill. “But I think it’s important that we understand that you have 150 different members that want to represent their district.”
The House’s proposal suggests giving parents a percentage of the average per-student spending, potentially resulting in a $10,000 voucher. This notion has raised concerns amongst public school advocates who argue that the Legislature should focus on increasing public school education funding, instead of diverting those dollars into a system that holds no accountability.
Bob Popinski, the senior director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas, highlights the educational funding challenges, stating, “We are $7,500 below the national average when it comes to teacher pay. We’re $4,000 below the national average when it comes to per-student funding. We’re underfunding our special education by about $1.8 billion.”
Lawmakers have allocated $500 million for the program, and Sen. Brandon Creighton, who authored SB1, asserts that it won’t take money away from public schools since the funding comes from general revenue.
However, Keith Bryant, Superintendent of Schools in Lubbock-Cooper ISD, explains that school funding is a pie that everyone in public schools in Texas is sharing, “if someone takes a slice out of the pie to fund vouchers for private schools or homeschooling, there is less pie remaining for Texas public schools.”
While both the House and the Senate bills fund vouchers, a significant point of contention between them lies in how much funding could be allocated to the program.
While the Senate’s bill allows for potential increases, the House’s plan requires legislative approval, aiming to set limits on expansion to prevent it from growing uncontrollably, as it has in other states.
“If you look at what happened in Arizona, it ballooned from a $60 million program to a $900 million program,” Popinski told Spectrum Local News. “So we definitely need to put guard rails on how much anyone can put funding into it, especially when it’s not during a regular session.”
The situation is further complicated due to a House rule that states the legislation won’t be able to advance until the Governor expands the special session call to include school finance.
Last week, Buckley, who chairs the House education committee, reiterated the stance held by House Speaker Dade Phelan about not letting voucher bills pass the House until Gov. Abbott adds public education funding to the special session agenda. However, Abbott has said that he’ll give additional funding to public schools only after a voucher bill is passed.
The Governor’s office later expressed that the House’s bill differs from their previous negotiations, but expressed a commitment to working with Speaker Phelan to reach a consensus.
With divisions persisting between House and Senate leadership, there’s growing doubt whether the legislation will ever reach Abbott’s desk.
The special session is set to end early November.