Texas House digging in heels for school voucher fight

Texas House digging in heels for school voucher fight

BY KIAH COLLIER

A bipartisan group of state representatives hammered private school choice proponents at a heated legislative hearing on Monday, signaling an enduring uphill battle in the Texas House for proposals that would use taxpayer dollars to help parents send their kids to private or parochial schools, or educate them at home.

Rural Republicans and Democrats in the lower chamber have long blocked such programs — often referred to in sweeping terms as “private school vouchers,” although there are variations. Passing one has emerged as a top priority in the Texas Senate for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who unsuccessfully pushed a private school choice program when he was a Republican state senator from Houston and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Last year, during Patrick’s first legislative session presiding over the upper chamber, senators passed a bill that would have given tax credits to businesses that donated to scholarship funds assisting low-income or special needs students with private or parochial school tuition. The legislation died in the House, where it didn’t even get a hearing.

Groups like the Texas Catholic Conference are still pushing the “tax credit scholarship” concept. But the focus has since shifted to the latest fad in private school choice: education savings accounts, or ESAs, which award taxpayer dollars directly to parents in the form of debit cards. Parents can use those funds for a variety of education-related expenses, including private or parochial school tuition or expenses related to home schooling or virtual schooling.

ESA proponents, including the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, told the House Public Education Committee during Monday’s hearing that the savings accounts have the most impact of various proposals because of the flexibility they give parents. And they advocated for a program that would be available to all families.

“A universal approach to educational choice would certainly benefit the most students,” said Randan Steinhauser, Texas adviser for EdChoice and executive director of Texans for Education Opportunity. “An ESA is also a very valid way to address the needs of the special-needs community.”

Five states have created ESAs, although all but one have restricted participation to special-needs students, Steinhauser told the panel. The outlier, Nevada, passed a universal program that the state’s supreme court recently struck down, although not because it diverted public funds to private institutions. (Something some conservative Texas lawmakers were quick to cheer.)

But Rep. Marsha Farney asserted early on Monday that diverting public funds to private schools may violate the Texas Constitution, which requires state lawmakers to support a free system of public schools.

“To me, words matter. The Constitution matters,” she said. “And when people refer to state funds and the government schools, I think we should refer to the schools as the Constitution schools because that’s where it originated.”

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