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Vouchers Return This Special Session — And School Funding Might Be Left Out. Here’s What You Need To Know.

Texas lawmakers will return to Austin on Monday for their second attempt this year to pass a statewide school voucher program, but whether they’ll seek to give schools additional funding — the other big education issue left pending during this year’s regular session — is up in the air.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for a special lawmaking session last month and said Thursday one of its focuses will be education savings accounts — a voucher-like program that would give families state money to pay for their children’s private schooling.

“Together, we will chart a brighter future for all Texas children by empowering parents to choose the best education option for their child,” Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott’s agenda — which also included immigration issues and COVID-19 restrictions — did not mention public school funding increases or teacher raises, despite dire teacher shortages across the state and clamoring from cash-strapped schools. Lawmakers came close to passing legislation back in May that would have added billions to school funding and given teachers raises, but it got held up amid negotiations over vouchers.

Lawmakers are free to file legislation in those areas, but some observers say that Abbott’s agenda is specific enough to keep any new public school funding off the table. The state constitution says lawmakers can only pass bills related to the governor’s agenda items during special sessions.

“Unless Governor Abbott puts public education funding on the special session call at a future time, the Legislature cannot pass legislation that would affect public school funding,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

Voucher supporters have long sought to establish such a program in the state. They believe many Texas families might be open to leaving the state’s public education system after voicing disappointment in recent years with how public schools responded to the pandemic and concerns with how they teach children about race, history and sex. Critics say vouchers would siphon money away from already struggling public schools.

Reaching a compromise in the Legislature may prove to be difficult once again as Democrats and rural Republicans in the House have historically opposed any form of vouchers. They successfully blocked a voucher program during this year’s regular session, but at the cost of not passing the measure to provide additional funding for schools to pay for teacher raises and combat rising costs due to inflation.

In the end, many school districts have paid the price. Many school officials have had to adopt deficit budgets, meaning their expenditures outweigh their revenues. Some school districts have dipped into their savings to offer teachers minimal raises, balance their budgets or simply keep the lights on. Others are considering closing some of their campuses altogether to save money.

Even if lawmakers pursue new funding for schools and teachers during the special session, passage would likely depend on a compromise on school vouchers — a tall order considering the widening political gulf between the House and Senate, which has been more supportive of vouchers.

“We need to start off with the reality that school choice was already rejected multiple times by the Texas House,” Jones said. “Now, any desire that the House might have had to work with the Senate and the governor was obliterated with the acquittal of Attorney General [Ken] Paxton.”

The House impeached Paxton this May; after the Senate acquitted him, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick directly criticized how the House handled the case.

Nevertheless, some believe lawmakers will pass both public school funding and a school voucher program this special session amid increasing political pressure. Abbott has been adamant about a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts, threatening to call for more special sessions if lawmakers fail again to pass a bill he likes and promising political consequences for those who get in the way.

“Education savings accounts and teacher pay [are] on the horizon,” said ​Mandy Drogin, campaign director of an education initiative for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s at stake in Texas education this special session.

School vouchers 

A voucher or “school choice” program is any government mechanism that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools.

The most prominent proposal this year — and the one Abbott endorses — is creating education savings accounts, which are essentially state-managed bank accounts for parents who remove their children from the public education system.

These accounts would give parents access to taxpayer money to pay for educational expenses like private school tuition, homeschooling materials, online schooling or private tutors.

Recent polling shows many Texans support vouchers, but plenty of confusion remains about what they do.

A recent UT/TXP poll showed that 61% of rural respondents expressed support for establishing a voucher program, but that number dropped to 43% when asked if they would support redirecting state tax revenue to private school tuition.

The poll’s intention was to show that the wording of the questions made an impact on whether people support school vouchers.

Voucher supporters have made a big push in recent years. A Texas Tribune analysis of campaign contributions shows that the Texas Federation for Children, a pro-school vouchers PAC, spent about $1.3 million supporting pro-voucher candidates and more than $600,000 to oppose those against them since June 2020.

The leading education savings account proposal during the regular session was Senate Bill 8, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe. It would have given families access to up to $8,000 in taxpayer money per student each year for private schooling and other educational expenses. The program would’ve given priority access to low-income families and received $500 million over the next two years.

One of the biggest criticisms opponents raised was that the bill didn’t have a mechanism to make sure private schools that receive state funds are held accountable to the same academic standards as public schools.

Creighton said parents’ ability to remove their children from any private school they don’t like is the ultimate accountability tool. His bill also required that the state comptroller’s office audit the program regularly to detect whenever program participants misuse state funds.

But Creighton’s bill failed after the House tried to limit its scope. SB 8 called for a voucher program that would’ve been accessible to most Texas students; the House countered with a program that would’ve been limited to certain groups of students, like those with disabilities or who are attending failing schools. The new bill never got a vote in the House after Abbott threatened to veto the bill if lawmakers didn’t expand its reach.

In a last-ditch effort to pass a voucher program, Creighton attached his broader proposal to House Bill 100, the only school finance bill that advanced during the regular session and would have given aid to schools to pay for teacher raises and combat inflation. The change meant House members would have to greenlight a voucher program in order to approve additional school funding; the lower chamber ultimately decided to say no to both.

It’s unclear how lawmakers’ positions on school vouchers have changed since the regular session, or whether the special session will end in a compromise or another stalemate.

During a Texas Tribune event in Austin last month, Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, showed he remained firmly against vouchers, and Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, was firmly supportive. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, showed more willingness to find an agreement, saying neither party must be set in their ways for things to get done.

“Our majority party wants vouchers. That’s a fact. Our state leadership wants vouchers. That’s a fact,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “We can continue to fight and waste a lot of time fighting and see who comes out winning, but guess who’s losing? Our teachers who are trying to pay their rent. Who’s losing? Our children who are not getting what they need.”

Public school finance and teacher raises

A House committee report on public education released in August shows that lawmakers in the lower chamber wanted public education funding and teacher raises to be a priority during the special session.

Texas ranks 28th in the nation for teacher pay, which is $7,652 less than the national average, according to the latest National Education Association report. A Tribune analysis shows that Texas teacher salaries have stagnated over the last decade.

During the regular session, public school advocates asked lawmakers to raise the basic allotment, the base amount of money schools get per student; overhaul the state’s school funding formula to account for inflation; and heavily invest in teacher raises.

The main proposal for teacher raises was the doomed HB 100, which would have provided a modest increase to the basic allotment and raised the teacher salary schedule, which dictates the minimum amount teachers should be paid based on their years of experience.

The bill would’ve also made changes to the core metric used to estimate how much money the state gives to public schools.

In Texas, if a student misses school, their district’s attendance average goes down — and so does the amount of money it receives. And in a post-COVID-19 world in which parents are quicker to keep their children home if they’re feeling ill, some districts’ finances have become more volatile than ever.

Schools have argued that basing school funding on their average student enrollment would give them more stability and let them better plan their budgets. HB 100 would’ve swapped attendance for enrollment in the school funding formula in some cases.

Lawmakers have given no indication of what kind of school funding proposals they might present during the special session.

Teacher preparation 

Texas schools have been struggling with teacher shortages in recent years. Issues like low pay, excessive overtime, health worries during the pandemic and being caught in the middle of Texas’ culture wars have led more teachers to leave the profession.

The Texas Education Agency has noted that the state is struggling to fill its teacher vacancies. Retaining teachers has also become increasingly difficult, and schools are having to refill positions on a yearly basis.

In response, Abbott formed a task force more than a year ago to find ways to fix the shortage. The group met for nearly a year and recommended that lawmakers increase salaries, pass programs to improve teacher preparation and commit to helping teachers spend less time working during their off hours. Those measures would make the profession more lucrative and keep educators from leaving, the task force said.

One proposal that both chambers agreed on to give teachers some relief was House Bill 1605, which went into effect Sept 1. It allocates nearly $800 million to produce open-source, high-quality instructional materials for teachers in an effort to save them some planning time. The bill also includes provisions that give parents more access to the materials teachers use to instruct their children.

But other proposals in response to the task force’s recommendations didn’t pass during the regular session. Both the House and the Senate pitched bills that would have provided some teacher raises, allocated funds for training and mentorship programs, and mandated the TEA to conduct a “time study” to take a deeper look at the reasons why teachers are spending so much time completing tasks outside their work hours. But these also died amid the school voucher debate.

Lawmakers might try to address teachers’ grievances again during the special session. Creighton has previously said teacher preparation is a topic he intends to revisit.

Disclosure: Rice University and Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

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