Texas Senate passes private school choice bill

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Texas Capitol

The full Senate voted 18-13 on Thursday to pass a bill that would create two public programs subsidizing private school tuition.

They voted out a floor substitute of Senate Bill 3 that would substantially limit the scope of the subsidy programs presented in previous versions of the bill. It would limit eligibility of the programs to students who have attended a public school for at least a year, preventing incoming kindergarteners from participating, and would exclude counties with populations under 285,000 from participating unless a school board votes to allow parents access.

The changes seemed directed to appeal to rural legislators with constituents who have fewer options for public schools and to those with concerns about the state costs of a major subsidy program.

Republican Sens. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, Joan Huffman of Houston and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville voted against the bill along with almost every Democrat. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, was the lone Democratic vote in favor.

SB 3 would create two public programs subsidizing private school tuition and homeschooling expenses. The first program, education savings accounts, would give parents access to online accounts of public money to pay for private school tuition and other expenses. The current version of the bill would cap the education savings account program by family income, so that a family of three making more than about $75,000 could not participate. (The previous version of the bill would have allowed a family of any income to participate in the education savings account.)

The second would be a tax credit scholarship program, letting businesses credit their insurance premium taxes in exchange for donations to approved scholarship organizations. The current version of the bill would cap that program at $25 million in the next fiscal year, instead of $100 million in the previous version. 

The current version would also require that 75 percent of funding for each program be dedicated to paying for tuition and the other 25 percent for education expenses, such as tutoring and special education services.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, author of the bill, said the bill in its current form would save the state millions of dollars. The Legislative Budget Board had calculated previous versions of the bill would cost the state between $90 million and $330 million; Taylor did not release the new fiscal note to the Senate before taking up the bill.

Critics of private school choice have argued the bill would siphon money from the public school system.

Read more Tribune coverage here:

  • Legislative staffers Tuesday received a one-page report detailing changes to Senate Bill 3, which would exclude rural counties from participating in the private school subsidy programs and limit overall participation.
  • In a 7-3 vote, the Senate Education Committee passed a bill that would create two public programs subsidizing private school tuition and homeschooling expenses.
  • Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee debate on private school subsidies lasted more than seven hours and saw experts on both sides arguing they knew best how to educate black and Latino Texas students.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/03/30/senate-school-choice-bill/.

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