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With an expected special lawmaking session on public education on the horizon, a Texas House committee on Friday proposed a path forward to reach a compromise on school vouchers, one of the most polarizing issues the Texas Legislature debated this year.
The 15-member committee, composed of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, released a report that also made a number of recommendations on school finance, the teacher workforce and student outcomes.
The committee didn’t endorse outright the Legislature passing a school voucher program, which would let parents use taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools.
But if lawmakers were to approve such a program, the report said, it should be smaller in scale than the one proposed during this year’s regular legislative session and prioritize high-need students.
The committee also recommended that any voucher program approved by the Legislature should use money that is separate from the public education budget and be held accountable to taxpayers.
The report is a first glimpse at what might be the terms the House requires in order to get the chamber’s approval on a voucher program. House Democrats and rural Republicans, who have previously banded together against proposals they believe might hurt the state’s public education system, blocked vouchers during the regular session.
It remains to be seen whether the full House would agree with the committee’s recommendations for a more constrained voucher program and whether the Senate, which wanted a broader program during the regular session, would sign off on a scaled-back version. Gov. Greg Abbott has also said he prefers a more universal program and previously threatened to veto any diluted version.
The committee also recommended that lawmakers look into expanding educational choices that already exist within the state’s public education system, such as STEM academies, career and technical education and early-college high schools.
Committee vice chair Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, wrote that a school voucher program should include a sunset date to allow the Legislature to review its performance and decide whether it’s worth continuing.
“Without accountability the Legislature is left without informational tools to monitor student progress,” Gervin-Hawkins wrote.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, was the only committee member who didn’t add her signature to the report, writing that some of its recommendations would hurt public schools and instead included her own suggestions for giving public schools more funding for teacher pay and special education programs. Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, signed the report but wrote that he did not agree with creating any kind of voucher program.
Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, wrote that the public education system already offers a plethora of choices for parents and students, and worried that school vouchers would open the door for public dollars to go to private institutions without any plans to ensure transparency or accountability.
“As we go forward, we cannot ignore either the right of parents to decide what is best for their children nor our constitutional mandate of maintaining ‘public free schools,”’ VanDeaver wrote. “I look forward to a thorough debate and honest discussions.”
House Speaker Dade Phelan created the committee in June to look into “educational opportunities” for Texas’ schoolchildren ahead of an expected special session to revisit the discussion on vouchers. The committee was announced at a time when both Abbott, who has made vouchers one of his top priorities this year, and Phelan, who was mostly noncommittal on vouchers during the regular session, found rare common ground on property tax cuts.
The committee’s report comes months after the regular session ended in a stalemate between the House and Senate over education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would allow parents access to a state-managed account to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses.
Lawmakers in the House wanted nothing to do with them while the Senate tried every tactic to pass a voucher-like program, even tacking it on to the only school finance bill the House advanced during the session. The lower chamber did not accept the Senate’s change and the session ended with neither a voucher-like program nor any new money for schools to pay for teacher raises and combat rising inflation.
Teacher and student outcomes
The committee report recommended that the Legislature raise the basic allotment, which is the base amount of money that school districts receive per student. Raising the allotment was a priority for cash-strapped schools going into the regular session.
The committee said raising the basic allotment will contribute to student achievement and let schools give raises to teachers, who were the only state employees not to receive a raise during the regular session.
The committee also recommended expanding the Teacher Incentive Allotment, a program that promises to pay teachers up to six-figure salaries if they meet certain performance requirements. It also recommends free pre-K for teachers’ children. In addition, it included recommendations to fund and establish Teacher Residency Programs, in which aspiring teachers are paired up with a teacher for a school year. Some school districts are already seeing success with such programs, although they’ve had to get creative on how to fund them without new funding from the state.
The report highlighted that about 1 in 3 teachers taught last year with no certification. To make the profession more accessible, the report recommended waiving certification costs for those wanting to be bilingual and special education teachers, and waiving certification costs for first-time teacher applicants.
The committee also recommended eliminating a charge school districts would incur if they hire retired teachers.
It recommended that lawmakers consider passing a policy that allows for rapid intervention when students show low proficiency in any school subjects and provide schools with tools to monitor students’ literacy development.
Most of these recommendations were previously made by a teacher vacancy task force put together by Abbott earlier this year. Lawmakers were ready to make some of these changes with several bills during the regular session, but they also fell apart amid the debate over school vouchers.
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