The standstill on Texas school choice funding and public school financing came to a head in Austin late Wednesday when House Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) made good on his promise to kill school choice, also knocking off public school financing since both were packed into the same piece of legislation, House Bill 21.
From the House floor, Huberty decried the Senate’s recent changes to the bill, insisting he would not accept them. Mainly, he opposed the addition of an education savings account (ESA) for disabled students.
On Monday, the Senate shaved down Huberty’s $1.6 billion public school mega-financing H.B. 21, instead pumping $530 million into Texas public education. This included $200 million of funding through the Foundation School Program, $20 million toward an autism education grant, $100 million for facilities funding for school districts and charter schools, plus a $150 million hardship grant for those school districts poised to lose Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction (ASATR) funding when the program sunsets out in September. They also folded in an ESA for special needs children, something the House vehemently opposed and public school lobbyists and teachers unions lambasted as the bill’s “poison pill.”
Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Galveston) told school choice opponents the ESA sought to offer “a little leverage” to the parents of roughly 5,000 disabled students that the state’s public education system did not well serve despite its best intentions and was “in no way threatening” to the 5.3 million students in the state’s public schools.
Huberty disagreed and wanted to send the bill back to a conference committee Wednesday, but his legislative counterpart Taylor told reporters he did not intend to assign more committee members to continue the already long-winded H.B. 21 negotiations. Taylor called the contents of the bill a “package deal.” He said, “I’m sorry they chose to kill House Bill 21, but that’s the choice they’ve made.”
From the start of the state’s 2017 legislative session, the House and Senate had very different visions about school funding. In February, Huberty, a former Humble Independent School District school board president, brusquely declared school choice dead to the delight of public education lobbyist organizations like the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), and Texas teachers unions.
He vowed to unilaterally kill off all school choice funding bills. Austin insiders responded to Huberty’s bluster by telling Breitbart Texas there would be no increase in public school funding from the state legislature unless a school choice bill passed. Taylor authored Senate Bill 3, a comprehensive ESA and tax credit scholarship package. Ultimately, he scaled it down to appease the House but, true to Huberty’s words, Taylor’s bill was dead on arrival.
For lawmakers like Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who has championed school choice legislation for a decade, this issue remained a high priority this session. In January, Governor Greg Abbott pledged he would sign school choice legislation. “I want that law to reach my desk and when it does I will make the choice to sign it.”
During the 84th legislative session, the state senate tried to pass Senate Bill 4, an education tax credit scholarship modeled after a 2010 Florida program and designed to allow low income and special needs families in failing public schools the assistance to pay for private tuition, but it was stopped in the less enthusiastic Texas House.
Wednesday, Patrick responded H.B. 21’s demise in a statement, calling Texas House leaders “obstinate and close-minded” on parental school choice funding, and for voting against “disabled children and a substantial funding increase for public schools”:
I am appalled that the Texas House turned down an additional half-billion dollars for public schools simply because it included a program that might allow some disabled child somewhere in Texas to attend a private school that his parents believe would be better for him or her. The House members who voted against HB 21 ignored the needs of disabled children to take a stand against school choice, which is supported by a strong majority of Texans in every demographic group and both political parties. Instead of supporting those Texans, those House members buckled under the demands of education bureaucrats.
House Speaker Joe Straus fired back, asserting that fixing school financing was not a priority for the Senate which “has chosen to focus on sending taxpayer dollars to private schools.” He said: “We appointed members of a conference committee today because the House was willing to continue to work on public school finance immediately. Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse.”
Meanwhile, pro-school choice advocates like the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) slammed the House. In a statement, Executive Vice President Dr. Kevin Roberts said: “We are deeply disappointed by the majority of the House putting politics ahead of children.”
Similarly, anti-school choice activists like National Education Association (NEA) affiliated Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) chief Noel Candelaria praised Huberty in a tweet, denouncing voucher choice.
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