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Texas Senate Passes School ‘Voucher’ Bill

Texas Senator Taylor
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By: Julie Chang – statesman.com – May 22, 2018

The Texas Senate approved 21-10 a bill early Monday morning that would inject about $530 million into the public education system while creating a so-called school choice system that would redirect state money to help students pay for private school tuition.

House Bill 21, originally would have injected $1.6 billion extra into the public school system through updating and adding various elements to the school funding formula. However, the Senate has reduced the extra funding to about half a billion dollars, which would go to pay for:

• $150 million for about 150 school districts that will lose so-called Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction funding in September through a hardship grant program. The amount of grant money such school districts would receive would be based on their tax rate.

• More funding for school district construction and establish such funding for the first time for charter schools.

• Funding for schools to educate students with dyslexia.

• $20 million grant program for public schools to educate students with autism in third grade and lower.

• A state commission to study and make recommendations on how to improve the school finance system.

The Austin school district would not receive any extra funding from HB 21; Round Rock would receive about $3 million over the next two years; and Pflugerville would receive about $800,000 over the next two years. Those school districts would have received millions more under a previous version of the bill.

“We’re trying to meet a bunch of different needs on one bill,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who presented the new version of HB 21 late Sunday. “We put one little thing on the end of it called ESA, the whole world is coming to an end.”

Arguably the most contentious part of the bill to some, including teacher groups and school district officials, is a provision that would create a so-called school choice system called education savings accounts for special education students. Under the savings account system, $8,200 of per-student funding the school district receives would be diverted to an account that a special education student leaving public school could use on private school tuition or other non-public education expenses. Critics have said the savings accounts are just another name for private school vouchers.

Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said that he is concerned that private schools don’t have to follow federal law that protects the education rights of students with disabilities.

“Those rights include rights to remain in services like counseling…physical therapy…modified curriculum,” Rodriguez said. “The main objection as you know…is using statutory dollars that are intended for public schools to go (to) private schools. I mean that’s the bottom line.”

About 40 education and policy groups have signed a letter in opposition to HB 21 after education savings accounts were added to it, saying that the bill would now strip money from public education.

Taylor does not see it that way and said that his bill is meant to provide more educational opportunities for a small group of students — 5,000 to 6,000 of them — who may not be getting the services they need in their public schools.

“The ESA portion of this bill saves money…estimates are $2 to $3 million every year,” Taylor said, although his critics have said that with every student who opens an account, the district won’t receive full state funding for that student.

A majority of House members have made it clear they do not support school choice. Last month, during a marathon debate of the House’s version of the state budget, House members overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would bar any state money from supporting school choice programs the next two years, cementing the chamber’s stance on the issue.

Taylor has said not including education savings accounts is a deal breaker, which means if the House doesn’t agree to the education savings accounts, HB 21 fails.

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who is the original author of the bill and House Education Chairman, told the American-Statesman Monday afternoon that he doesn’t plan on agreeing with the version of HB 21 passed that morning, which means the chambers’ differences will likely have to be sussed out in a committee.

Huberty added that HB 21 isn’t funded in the Senate’s version of the budget.

“I’m meeting with my staff today and we’re going to go look at it and we’re going to decide if there’s any options. I don’t think there are,” Huberty said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a longtime proponent of education savings accounts, urged Huberty to concur with the bill and if he does, the Senate will agree to push back implementation of the the unpopular A-F accountability rating systems one more year to 2019.

Other changes Taylor has made to the original bill filed in the House include removing a funding bump for public schools to educate non-native English speakers and scrapping an increase to the $5,140 allotment that all public schools receive. Taylor said the changes were meant to bring down the cost of the bill, which was at one point $1.9 billion.

Senators tried to add about a dozen amendments to HB 21. One that would have required private schools to provide special education services required in federal law failed. Another one that would allow more state money to back charter school bonds so that such schools can obtain lower interest rates was successfully added.

“In the middle of the night, the Texas Senate voted for a voucher scheme that will rob taxpayer money from public schools and give it to private schools,” said Ann Beeson, executive director of the left-leaning Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “What started as a good school finance bill in the Texas House turned into a voucher bill that does not help remodel our state’s school finance system.”

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Source: statesman.com/news/state–regional-govt–politics/texas-senate-passes-school-finance-school-voucher-bill