School voucher bill to reach Texas House floor Friday for potentially pivotal vote

ByBrian Lopez, The Texas Tribune
Friday, November 17, 2023
School voucher bill to reach Texas House for potential pivotal vote
The lower chamber has traditionally been against school vouchers and the bill still faces a tough road ahead. This will be the first time such a proposal has reached the full chamb

After years of work from advocates and months of arm-twisting in the state Capitol, the Texas House appears poised to vote on the creation of a school voucher program Friday.

House Bill 1, authored by Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, is the lower chamber's $7 billion wide-ranging education proposal that would create education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would allow parents access to taxpayer money to pay for private schools. The House is set to convene at 10 a.m. Friday and will take up the bill at some point.

The bill passed a House committee on Nov. 10 and its initial approval marked the furthest a school voucher program has reached in the Texas House in recent history. In fact, it's possible a school voucher bill has never made it to a floor vote in the House, according to legislative records - though an exact determination is difficult given that the Legislature has considered different forms of school voucher programs since the 1950s.

HB 1 also includes billions of dollars worth of new funding for public schools to sweeten the deal for House members - both rural Republicans and Democrats - who have traditionally stood in the way of school vouchers in Texas. But there will likely be attempts on the floor Friday to strip vouchers from the bill and pass a measure that increases school funding without education savings accounts.

Proponents of the bill argue that school vouchers empower parents to make the best educational decisions for their children. Those against them say the program threatens to take money away from public schools, which are funded based on student attendance. Voucher opponents argue that this money would be better spent in already underfunded public schools, which have been struggling with rising inflation and enrollment declines.

Most notably, the bill includes a bump in the base per-student spending by the state, from $6,160 to $6,700. It would also increase teacher pay and include money for better teacher preparation, more pre-K options, increases to special education funding and establish a commission to revamp school accountability. It would also increase charter school facilities funding from $60 million to $300 million by 2030.

While many public school advocates and officials would welcome the funding, some lawmakers have made it clear that they will not pass HB 1 with an education savings account provision. Currently, the bill would allow parents access to $10,500 every year per student for private school expenses and up to $1,000 for homeschoolers. The program would prioritize students from low-income families and those with disabilities, but every child would be eligible for the money as funds allow.

The bill passing the House committee marked a slight victory for Gov. Greg Abbott and pro-voucher advocates, who have been negotiating with House members since the regular Legislative session this past spring.

The Senate has passed school voucher bills multiple times this year and in previous years. But the coalition of Democratic and rural Republican opponents have always blocked it from advancing in the House.

Abbott has made the issue his top priority this year, and has threatened to continue calling lawmakers back to Austin until they pass a bill. Republican opponents of the measure are facing threats of challenges in the upcoming 2024 primaries.

But while the House committee passed the bill this time, with the help of several votes in favor from rural Republicans, the measure's hopes in the full chamber are still very uncertain.

Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, represents a swath of rural communities in House District 1 and is one of several rural Republicans who have stood against school vouchers. He voted in favor of the bill in committee.

"I do believe that the House needs to have this discussion," he said. "We need to debate this bill. We need to debate this issue, and then let the House vote."

But while VanDeaver believes the full House should have the final say, he said he won't support the bill in its current form even if Abbott keeps threatening with special sessions and mounting primary challenges in districts that dissent.

"I'm just philosophically not in favor of vouchers primarily because of the district I represent," VanDeaver said.

Similarly, Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, voted in favor of passing the bill onto the full House even though he is against vouchers.

"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 during the committee meeting on Nov. 9.

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