The Senate Education Committee got two major bills out of the way Friday, passing legislation that would create a "private school choice" program and start a commission to study the school finance system.
The committee voted 8-2 to pass Senate Bill 2, creating a tax credit scholarship subsidizing private school tuition for students with disabilities. It voted 10-0 to pass Senate Bill 16, which would task a 13-person committee of legislators and educators with developing recommendations on how to fix the beleaguered system for funding public schools before the 2019 regular session.
The bills could be taken up on the Senate floor as soon as Monday.
Gov. Greg Abbott listed both issues in his 20-bill agenda for the July-August special session, which the Senate has wasted no time in tackling, with several committees set to meet through the weekend.
Parents, educators and activists sat in front of the Senate panel from 10 a.m. until just after 6 p.m. to explain how subsidizing private school tuition for students with disabilities would sap resources from public schools, or how it would offer families a wider array of options.
Abigail Tassin, a 17-year-old Fort Bend ISD student with Down syndrome, asked legislators not to pass the bill, instead urging them to focus on improving public schools' resources for kids with disabilities.
"I want to be with everyone else," she said. "Help my teachers be able to help me better."
SB 2 is similar to several proposals that its author, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, pitched to the Senate during the regular session. Insurance companies would receive premium tax credits in exchange for contributions to scholarship organizations.
An estimated 6,000 students with disabilities would receive up to $10,000 in scholarships to private schools under the bill. In addition, an estimated 26,000 eligible students with disabilities could receive up to $500, if they stay in their school districts, to pay for transportation or needed services. The tax credits for businesses would be capped at $75 million per year.
Tara Cevallos, principal of St. Austin's Catholic School, said Catholic schools do not have all the resources to provide services for students with special needs, but that tax credit scholarships would help them. Private schools can provide a "niche approach," because they have so few students, she said.
Taylor also added a few unrelated programs to the bill, including $60 million for charter schools, $60 million for facilities funding for traditional public schools, and $150 million for a hardship grant program for struggling small, rural schools that relied on a now-expired state aid program.
The $270 million for those programs would be borrowed from the Health and Human Services Commission, by delaying payments to health care companies providing Medicaid.
Sen. Bob Hall, R-Canton, said he was concerned about that "deficit spending," before he voted yes on the bill. "I would hope that between now and when we get to the floor, we find a way to solve that problem," he said.
Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said adding programs that school districts actually want to a "private school choice" bill prevents in-depth discussion of school funding. He said the bill would not help improve public schools for kids with special needs who decide to remain in that system.
"One of the biggest philosophical problems we have with this bill is that it changes the mentality from 'Let's fix the problems that we have' ... to saying, 'Well, now we've provided you with this out,'" he said.
The committee took under an hour to hear testimony and approve a bill that would create a 13-member commission to study the school finance system. The commission would have four members appointed by the governor, four appointed by the lieutenant governor, four appointed by the House speaker, and a member of the State Board of Education. It would deliver recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2018, intended to guide lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session.
Policy experts who testified asked the bill's author to make the commission more transparent about how it conducted the study.
"We would appreciate the opportunity to ensure that the public can in some fashion or procedure submit public comments to the commission," said Steve Aleman, policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas.
Taylor said regular public input was unlikely. "Generally someone who just comes from the public, they have a very limited view of public education in Texas," he said. "I don't foresee us having a public hearing every time."
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.
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