School Choice Inches Ahead In Texas Senate, Rebuffing Critics Who Claimed It Was ‘Stalled’

It almost became a mantra among the Left last week that the session’s banner school choice bill was permanently stalled in the Texas Senate.

Slowly but surely, it advanced. Last Thursday, Senate Bill 8 passed the Senate Education committee 10-2 and now heads to the floor, after receiving feedback from nearly 1,300 citizen witnesses.

Then on Friday, several GOP Senators rallied around SB 8. The most notable feature of SB 8 is to let parents access up to $8,000 of per-pupil K-12 funding to send their children to accredited schools to be used on tuition, books, uniforms, and other materials.

Some Senate leaders say the bill could be debated as early as Thursday. So far eight out of 31 members of the Senate have signed on — all Republicans.

Also on Thursday, the Texas House will take up SB 1, the biennial state budget bill, and one amendment pre-filed bill by Democratic Rep. Abel Herrero would ban the use of state money for “school vouchers or similar programs.” A similar budget amendment passed 103-42 in 2013 with numerous Republicans in favor then, many of whom were moderate or from a rural district.

SB 8 author, Republican Texas Sen. Brandon Creighton, clarified that the money would not be freely given to parents and guardians as a debit card, which is the practice in some states. All qualifying vendors would have to be approved by the state. This has sounded some alarm bells among some conservatives who have long argued vouchers and alternatives such as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) would lead to eventual government regulation of private schools.

Rural and small districts, which have long-argued that school choice could decimate not only their campuses but the communities which surround their schools, would be protected, Creighton said. Districts with under 20,000 students would be put into a “hold harmless” category in which give these schools $10,000 per student who leaves. That a huge potential price tag, but with a surplus the size of several small states’ budgets, Texas should be able to afford that — even if roughly half of all districts in the Lone Star State have under 20,000 students.

Private school and home school families would not be eligible for the ESA dollars — it would be just for students who were enrolled in a Texas public school over the last year or are new to school, Creighton explained.

Such a plan has been named a priority by both Gov. Greg Abbott — the first time he has strongly supported school choice — and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the state Senate. So far the Texas House has been noncommittal.


From the hip: This is not 2013, and as we previously reported there is more momentum behind school choice this session than ever before.

But will that momentum be enough? With 23 Senators still unsigned, SB 8 could change significantly between now and when a floor-approved version is sent to the House.

As we also previously reported, the Texas House will be the battleground for school choice this session. It’s interesting that the anti-school choice crowd attempted to put the line of scrimmage in the Senate. Watch the debate on the House floor on Thursday as a measure of how far overall support has expanded.

Now to the elephant in the room: Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick have each put some skin in the game for school choice this session. Patrick has even said he doesn’t have any summer plans. What would happen if House and Senate members do not come up with some sort of compromise? Are we looking at a special session (or two, or three?). How many bills may be held hostage by either chamber or be threatened with a veto?

And how will other, more conservative school choice bills feed into this debate? There’s SB 176 by Sen. Mayes Middleton, SB 2354 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, SB 2483 by Sen. Angela Paxton, and numerous other vehicles in the House. Expect a few Republican proposals to slip their way into the stack of budget amendments on Thursday to counter Herrero’s biennial amendment.



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