The Texas Senate passed school choice legislation, Senate Bill 3, that would establish education savings accounts and tax credit scholarship programs intended to expand K-12 options for children. The bill crossed the finish line in a final vote of 18-13 on Thursday with a few notable changes.
The bill’s author, Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) said the floor substitute would drop the bill’s cost from $300 million to $9 million over the next two years. The amended S.B. 3 expanded eligibility to include more special education students, but now only applies to school-age children living in a county with 285,000 or more in population, excluding rural schools.
Many rural school district advocates feared funding cuts while others worried over a lack of private schools to handle such programs. Despite the change, Taylor added a “parent trigger” for rural parents to exercise should they want to participate.
Eligible students include low-income families where households are at least 175 percent below the federal poverty line, students with disabilities, and certain homeschoolers.
Breitbart Texas reported some homeschool parents objected to ESAs, concerned they could lead to future government regulation. The original bill did not require kindergarten or first-grade students to attend public school for the entire preceding academic year before homeschooling. Now it does, and it means existing homeschool families cannot participate.
On Friday, a spokesman in Taylor’s office told Breitbart Texas, “The requirement for prior public school enrollment is likely to mean that most homeschoolers won’t take advantage of the program.”
Should a family decide to leave public school, the Texas Home School Coalition says the revised bill safeguards families in protective language. Also, it prohibits the state comptroller, the Texas Education Agency, the State Board of Education, and other state agencies and school districts from regulating a provider’s educational program, content, or materials of a “religious nature.”
In a statement to Breitbart Texas, THSC President Tim Lambert said, “While S.B. 3 falls short of where we would like it to be, it gives parents more choices for the education of their children, and we are happy that the Senate rejected efforts to regulate those participating in the program.”
ESAs and tax credit scholarships will not receive any money from the Foundation School Program (FSP) – the State’s main source of funding for public education. The state “realizes an ultimate savings since the award amounts for participants of ESAs and TCSs are less than what a student would be entitled to if they were in the public school system,” Senator Taylor’s office said in a press release. The statement indicated school choice advocates estimate the proposed Texas ESA program would lead to 11,809 additional high school graduates within five years.
Under S.B, 3, the state comptroller would administer ESAs and choose an educational non-profit to oversee tax credit scholarships. Parents can use ESAs for an accredited private school, private tutoring, online learning, and other materials while students with disabilities could pay for educational therapies or services and buy computer hardware and software.
The release states public schools would receive funding equal to 50 percent of the savings and are held harmless for recapture payments for one year if a student leaves for private school.
Under the bill’s scholarship option, participating businesses may receive a tax credit up to 5 percent of their annual insurance tax liability for contributions made to the educational non-profit. A student can apply for private school scholarship funds up to 75 percent of the statewide average a school district receives for student average daily attendance. Those who choose to remain in public school are eligible for $500 towards academic support programs. Youth living in foster or institutional care, or have an active duty military parent may also participate. The program caps at $25 million annually.
S.B. 3 passed mostly along party lines. Senator Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) was the lone Democrat to vote for school choice. Republican senators Kel Seliger, Joan Huffman, and Robert Nichols voted against the bill.
Texas teacher unions and public school lobbyist organizations opposed the bill, calling it a “voucher” that would take public taxpayer dollars away from public schools and into private and parochial schools without accountability.
“It does not affect our public school finance system, but it does provide a small number of students the chance to consider something different,” said Taylor on Thursday, speaking on behalf of those students the existing system failed for numerous reasons.
Longtime school choice champion Lt. Governor Dan Patrick commended Taylor for his leadership “on this critical issue” in a statement. He said a “wide majority of Texans in every demographic group and both political parties support school choice,” and underscored “making sure every child has the opportunity to attend the school their parents believe is best for them is something the people of Texas elected us to do.”
Governor Greg Abbott pledged to sign a school choice bill if one makes it to his desk. First, S.B. 3 must make it through the House where Representative Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) declared school choice “dead” and vowed to unilaterally block bills from getting heard in the education committee he chairs, although he raced to unveil a $1.6 billion public school financing bill. In response, as Breitbart Texas reported, Austin sources said, “All of Huberty’s bills are dead on arrival in the Senate.”
Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.