Gov. Greg Abbott Threatens Special Session If Lawmakers Fail to Expand School Choice Bill

Gov. Greg Abbott Threatens Special Session If Lawmakers Fail to Expand School Choice Bill  at george magazine

Texas state lawmakers could be headed back to Austin this summer if they fail to pass school choice legislation for millions of students before the close of session on May 29, warned Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Parents and their children deserve the time and effort this will take,” Abbott said in a statement posted on Twitter May 14.

Abbott posted the statement after the Texas House Committee on Public Education proposed a significantly altered version of Senate Bill 8, a school choice bill that would provide up to $8,000 per year per student to Texas families who want to move their children into private schools or other alternatives.

Senate Bill 8 passed along party lines in the upper chamber in April.

Under the original bill, about 5.5 million students would qualify for the ESA program. The original House version of the bill proposed the last week reduced this to about 4 million students.

But under the latest version of the House proposal, only about 800,000 students would qualify, Abbott said. It also provides less funding for special education and denies school choice to low-income families, he said.

“Failure to expand the scope of school choice to something close to the Senate version or the original House version of the Senate bill will necessitate special sessions,” Abbott said. “Parents and their children deserve no less.”

Abbott’s warning came hours before the House Committee on Public Education was set to vote on the pared-down legislation. The Republican governor vowed to veto the House’s substitute version of Senate Bill 8 (pdf), which limits the eligibility pool and offers less funding to low-income students and those with special needs.

The original version of Senate Bill 8 would be available to most K–12 students, allowing parents who opt out of public school to apply $8,000 per student per year toward their child’s private education, including textbooks and tutoring. The average cost of private school tuition in Texas is $10,454 per year, according to Private School Review.

It would also restrict public and charter schools from providing lessons, campus activities, or programs regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.

The governor has spent the last several months traveling across the state promoting GOP legislation to expand school choice through education savings accounts (ESAs), also known as school vouchers, which would allow parents to access state money to fund K–12 education, tutoring, and other educational materials outside the public school system.

“This latest version does little to provide meaningful school choices, and legislators deserve to know that it would be vetoed if it reached my desk. Instead, the original House version of the Senate bill provides a more meaningful starting point to begin House-Senate negotiations,” Abbott said.

Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton authored the original version of Senate Bill 8 (pdf). The House has yet to clear either the original bill or substitute versions with less than two weeks left in the session.

Committee Substitute to Senate Bill 8

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Brandon Buckley revised the proposal, known as Committee Substitute to Senate Bill 8, which would limit ESA availability to children who have a disability, are educationally disadvantaged, or attend a school that has received a “D” rating or lower for the prior two years. Eligibility would also be open to siblings of those in the program.

Roughly 800,000 students statewide would qualify under the substitute bill.

In Texas, about 56 percent of the state’s 5.5 million students in public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to Public School Review.  About 11 percent of students are enrolled in special education programs, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation data for 2020–21. During the same period, 6.7 percent of public campuses statewide received a “D” or lower rating from the Texas Education Agency, but they were labeled as “not rated” due to interruptions caused by the pandemic.

An explainer page about the bill says it would eliminate the state’s STAAR test, a once-a-year test that assesses students’ knowledge of the state’s curriculum (pdf). However, while the committee substitute bill would eliminate the STAAR, the annual test would be replaced by multiple tests throughout the school year.

Bob Popinski is the senior director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy organization.

“The testing provision included in the committee substitute [does] need discussion, but not in conjunction with a voucher proposal,” Popinski said in a statement to The Epoch Times. “Raise Your Hand Texas believes in a robust assessment and accountability system, with no more than 50 percent of a state assessment being counted for a campus of district A-F letter grade.”

Popinski said the House version of CSSB 8 does not abolish the state test.

“Annual testing is still required under federal law,” he said. “The provisions of the bill rebrand STAAR and do not improve how campus and district A-F letter grades are determined.”

A late-night meeting to consider the plan was blocked by Republican Rep. Ernest Bailes, who objected to Buckleys’ motion for the committee to meet.

“This is not the right way to do this,” Bailes said, the Texas American Federation of Teachers reported. “Our kids matter in the state of Texas, and they are better than backroom shady dealings, which is what this is right here.”

The chamber denied his request to vote on the bill.

May 15 Hearing

On May 15, the House education committee reconvened to debate and hear hours of testimony from invited school officials, both public and private.

Temple Independent School District Superintendent Bobby Ott told the committee that he opposes ESAs for a number of reasons, including the lack of funding for special education in public schools.

“I will tell you there are no higher service requirements found anywhere for special needs children than in public schools,” Ott told the committee. “But you will also find no program more underfunded in public schools than special education.

“The Texas Commission on special education shows that local school districts and taxpayers are subsidizing special education—almost $1.9 billion. An alternative would be to appropriately fund special ed in our public schools because this would actually impact more children,” he continued.

Democrat state Rep. Alma Allen, vice chair of the education committee, argued that vouchers would not solve the problems in public education.

“If you want to solve the problem, you fix the school,” Allen said during the hearing. “Fix the school by putting in good teachers. You pay teachers. You upgrade the profession so that those children get the same education,” adding that the vouchers would not help the families who are living in poverty.

The committee was scheduled to continue its discussions of the proposal on May 16.

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