*Clarification appended

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.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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." 

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Georgetown Republican, who lost a primary election earlier this year to a pro-school choice candidate, outlined a long list of some private school admission requirements — no discipline issues, good academic performance, letters of reference, drug testing and parental involvement, including financial contributions — and asked what would happen if students using public funds don't meet those criteria.

"It appears to me either the private school is going to lose their identity and their rights to have all these rules or else the voucher is meaningless," she said.

"They don't have to go to that school. It's an opt-in program," Steinhauser shot back, describing Farney's questions as "very loaded."

Any parents who misuse funds would be subject to criminal penalties, Steinhauser told the panel Monday. She also said the state education agency could outsource oversight of the program to other agencies to cut down on costs, addressing another of Farney's concerns. 

Other committee members highlighted the lack of private school options in rural parts of the state and questioned the absence of any accountability measures for the schools, or people, receiving public funds under the proposed programs, including standardized testing. 

"This is a statement, so this is not a debate: The people that are pushing this, perhaps, on the other side of the building are also not in favor of getting rid of tests for the public school children and the assessments for the public school children," said Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, referring to the Senate. "That's a little hypocritical, don't you think?"

But former House Public Education Committee chairman Kent Grusendorf, now a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Education Freedom, told Huberty that imposing state accountability standards on private schools would "guarantee the failure of the program."

"If you empower the parents, you really have the ultimate accountability system," he said.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The tax credit scholarship bill the Senate passed last session required participating private schools to be accredited and administer a nationally recognized standardized exam annually. It also was limited to students currently attending public schools with an enrollment of more than 100 in counties of more than 50,000 people. 

Lawmakers should fix the state's broken school finance system, or public education in general, before dumping money into school choice programs, Huberty and several other committee members also contended Monday.

But Grusendorf was adamant that passing something like an ESA was a prerequisite.

It's "impossible to do that without this," he said. "The problem is systemic, and the solution is freedom."

Rep. Dwayne Bohac emerged as the lone committee member in support of private school choice Monday. The Houston Republican said no one should be forced to send their child to a bad school and that he is lucky enough to be able to afford private school tuition but many others are not. 

"I think school choice has broad bipartisan support," he said, detailing the initial opposition to charters and the courage he believes it takes to stand for school choice in Texas.

"Courage is contagious. Keep up the courage," he told the private school choice proponents.

"I hope you’ll develop even more courage," said state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, later in the hearing. "The courage to fix an inner-city, low-performing school is real courage, and I don't think it means going in and saying we need to take money or anything out of this school." 

The committee, meeting for the last time before the 2017 legislative session starts in January, will deliver a report with recommendations to House Speaker Joe Straus this fall.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that state Rep. Marsha Farney is leaving office after losing a Republican primary election to a pro-school choice candidate.

Never miss a moment in Texas politics with our daily newsletter.