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Senate Education Committee passes school choice legislation

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.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chair of the Senate Education Committee, directs a witness during testimony on March 21, 2017.   

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

After little debate Thursday, the Senate Education Committee voted 7-3 to pass legislation that would create two public programs subsidizing private school tuition and homeschooling expenses.

Senate Bill 3, a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, now heads to the full Senate, where it’s also expected to pass. Corresponding bills have not been taken up by the House Public Education Committee.

Thursday’s vote came two days after a committee hearing that lasted more than eight hours, with more than 150 people filling the room to testify in support and opposition. The bill’s author, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, submitted a new version of the bill that he said would decrease the cost of the programs.

“We are continuing to work on this bill when we get out of this committee. We will work with you as well as all the members who are on the Senate floor,” he said Thursday.

The first program created in the bill, education savings accounts or ESAs, would give parents online accounts of state money to pay for private school tuition or homeschooling expenses.

The second program, tax credit scholarships, would allow businesses to receive credits against their insurance premium taxes if they contribute to approved scholarship organizations.

The fiscal note attached to the previous version of the bill said it would cost the state $90 million to $330 million in general revenue in the next biennium, depending on the payment schedule. The newer version of the bill would take the cost to the lower end of that range, according to testimony Thursday from the Legislative Budget Board. The board does not yet have a fiscal note with exact numbers.

Proponents of private tuition subsidies say they allow parents flexibility on how to get the best education for their children. They argued Tuesday that parents keep private schools in check by leaving those that are doing a bad job — therefore, state accountability is not needed.

Opponents of the bill argue that competition does not work when it comes to education, and that schools receiving public money should be accountable to the state.

“Those who go and take public money in public schools will have some of the most stringent accountability standards in the country, and those who get public money under Senate Bill 3 will have none,” said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, Thursday before he voted against the bill. Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, also voted against the bill.

The programs proposed in Senate Bill 3 would offer money to public school students to leave the system for private schools or homeschooling.

Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who voted for the measure, argued that would help school districts, especially those growing so quickly that they are having trouble funding the additional enrollment. “There actually will be more money per child in the public education system in Texas,” he said. “Slowing the rate of growth is actually operationally advantageous to the districts I represent.”

But public educators disagree with Taylor’s math, saying that the programs would cost the state money, and not significantly reduce the amount schools need to spend.

“Children don’t leave in perfect groups of 22 or 25, allowing a district to then need one less teacher. Even if they left in those groups, all of the other costs to operate a facility and run a quality school don’t go away,” said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition, a group of 75 school districts seeing the quickest enrollment growth in Texas.

Public education advocates have urged the Legislature to focus on putting more funding into the public school system, and allocating that money equitably.

“SB3’s voucher scheme will drain tax dollars from public education, without helping families most in need. Instead the Legislature should focus on the real issue – remodeling Texas’ outdated school finance system to ensure all Texas students can get a quality public education, no matter where they live or what their background,” said Ann Beeson, executive director of the left-leaning policy group Center for Public Policy Priorities, in a statement after the vote.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • 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.
  • Rural conservatives and homeschoolers are joining forces with public education advocates against Senate Bill 3, which pushes private school choice. Their state senators are not all on the same page.

Disclosure: The Fast Growth School Coalition and the Center for Public Policy Priorities have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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