Texas Senate Passes Special Needs ‘School Choice’ Bill

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FILE/AP Photo

The Texas Senate passed a school choice funding bill for special needs students early Wednesday morning following a marathon session that covered a slew of legislation.

However, Texans remain divided on this education topic even though, in June, Governor Greg Abbott named school choice for special needs students on his 20 top priority items to pass when calling for the 30-day special legislative session now underway.

Texas Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) authored Senate Bill 2. Earlier this week, the full Senate preliminarily voted 19-12 approving the bill largely along party lines. Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) crossed over to stand with Republicans in favor of the bill while Senators Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) and Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) stood alongside Democrats against the bill.

SB 2 allows roughly 6,000 special needs students in public schools to receive scholarships of up to $10,000 to attend accredited private schools while another 26,000, who plan to remain in public school, would get $500 for supplemental services and/or transportation to fill in financial gaps. The program gets funded through insurance company donations. In return, they receive premium tax credits which is capped at $75 million.

The bill also establishes a $150 million grant program for schools that receive Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction (ASATR) funding, which sunsets out in September. SB 2 offers $60 million in facilities funding for open-enrollment public charter schools and $60 million for fast-growth public schools. According to the bill, they will borrow these funds from the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. To accomplish this, the state would delay an August 2019 payment to Medicaid-affiliated health care companies and then pay them back double the following month, said Taylor on Monday.

In the lower chamber, Representative Ron Simmons filed House Bill 58, a tax credit scholarship similar to Taylor’s SB 2. It supports students with disabilities whether they choose to remain in the public school system or opt out to attend private school.

During the regular 2017 legislative session, Taylor filed a broader school choice funding package, Senate Bill 3, later scaled down and passed 18-13 by the Senate. However, Representative Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), who heads up the House’s education committee, declared war on school choice funding, calling it a “dead” issue. In late May, he decried SB 3 from the House floor where Taylor’s bill died. Likewise, Simmons authored special needs school choice legislation that never got heard by a House committee.

Little also appears to have changed regarding public opinion on school choice funding since the Legislature’s regular session. Proponents say this affords families access to alternative educational opportunities that better fit a child in instances where public schools do not meet their special needs. Opponents fear the bill is a door-opener to larger so-called “voucher” programs. While this bill does not pertain to homeschool children, some parents feel school choice funding, in general, may lead to more regulation that will eventually infringe upon their freedoms.

Education lobbyists and teachers unions criticize school choice, saying it will divert public taxpayers dollars from their coffers. Yet, despite this opposition, the state already funds a public-to-private higher education scholarship through taxpayer dollars for which there is no outcry.

In 1973, Texas lawmakers voted to enact the Tuition Equalization Grant (TEG). It uses public taxpayer dollars in the general revenue fund to offset a modicum of costs for financially “need-based” students who want to attend private colleges or universities within the state. Many of these institutions of higher learning are religiously affiliated.

By email, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board spokeswoman Kelly Carper Polden told Breitbart Texas, “Texas Equalization Grants, funded by general revenue (taxpayer dollars), provide partial funding for tuition for Texas residents and certain out-of-state National Merit Scholarship finalists enrolled in nonprofit Texas private or independent colleges and universities.”

SB 2 now moves onto the House.

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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