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A Texas House committee has advanced school voucher legislation that could be key to ending the protracted stalemate over the issue this year at the Capitol.
By a vote of 10-4, the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment approved House Bill 1 on Friday. It is a wide-ranging education bill that includes a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts that lets parents use taxpayer dollars to subsidize private schooling costs.
Gov. Greg Abbott has pushed all year for the proposal, prompting four special sessions. The committee approval marks the furthest a voucher bill has gotten in the House in recent history.
"We are excited to see a Texas House education committee pass school choice for the first time since 2005," Tommy Schultz, CEO of the American Federation for Children, said in a statement. "It's time to get this done."
The legislation now goes to the House Calendars Committee, which is responsible for routing bills to the floor for votes in the full chamber.
Abbott gave the legislation his blessing during an unrelated news conference Friday afternoon at the Capitol, calling it an "extraordinarily effective bill." He acknowledged the bill still has a number of major hurdles to clear, including approval on the House floor and then compromise with the Senate.
He warned that if the House removed the voucher component on the floor — something Democrats are already preparing to fight to do — the Senate would likely balk and he would veto it if it reached his desk anyway. Then, he said, he'd just keep calling them back into session until it passed.
"We’d be spending December here, maybe January here, maybe February here," Abbott said. "And I know one thing about both the House and Senate: They want to get out of here."
The 10-4 committee vote fell along party lines. The four no votes were all Democrats, while the fifth Democrat on the committee, Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, was absent.
House Bill 1 would establish an education savings account initiative that would set aside $10,500 every year per student for private school expenses. The program would prioritize students from low-income families and those with disabilities.
Critics of the bill worry that it diverts funding away from public education.
The bill’s other provisions include a bump in per-student spending by the state, from $6,160 to $6,700. It would also increase teacher pay.
House Democrats downplayed the significance of the committee vote ahead of it, suggesting the legislation still faced tough odds before the full House. In a letter to members, caucus Chair Trey Martinez Fischer said the vote would be a “reflection of a desire for the entirety of the House to have a final up-or-down vote on the voucher piece of this bill.”
“The vote is not and should not be seen as a reflection of the committee's position on the merits of a voucher scam,” wrote Martinez Fischer, of San Antonio.
Democrats have long joined rural Republicans to oppose school vouchers in the House. The 10 Republicans who voted for HB 1 on Friday included four who registered opposition to school vouchers during a test vote earlier this year: Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Keith Bell of Forney, Ken King of Canadian and Gary VanDeaver of New Boston.
In an interview Thursday afternoon, VanDeaver said he voted to advance the bill because he believed it was a highly consequential proposal that warranted deliberation by the entire chamber.
"I just think this issue is not one that needs to be decided in a 15-member committee," VanDeaver said. "I think it deserves the consideration of the full House. The House needs to speak on it."
VanDeaver said he did not know if the House had the votes for the bill currently, calling it a "very fluid situation." He added he believed there were versions of HB 1 that could pass the chamber but it could depend on the amendments that are offered on the floor.
The committee chair, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, was under intense pressure — from the governor and others — to put together a bill that could bring rural Republicans onboard.
Abbott singled out Buckley for praise Friday afternoon, calling him a "tremendous leader, a tireless, persevering leader."
Abbott has put a lot of political capital on the line to try to get a voucher bill to his desk, but he was thwarted by the House in the regular session and again in the third special session. He has threatened that if lawmakers cannot get it done in a fourth special session, he will turn his focus to making it an issue against GOP holdouts in their March primaries.
The Senate has long passed its own voucher legislation, including its latest bill Thursday night. That proposal, Senate Bill 1, would create an education savings account program that would dole out $8,000 per student.
Abbott said he expected the Senate to be "very close to where the House is on the school choice component." On the rest of the bill, including public school funding, Abbott said there will be "issues here and there that the House and Senate will work out."
The upper chamber has a separate piece of legislation, Senate Bill 2, that addresses public school funding.
The Senate's Education Committee chairman, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said in a statement he applauded the the House committee passage of HB 1 and "welcome[s] the opportunity to work with the House on specifics."
"I think that we all agree that lifting up public schools, providing across the board raises to hard working teachers, and empowering Texas students with school choice are critical for the future of our state, and issues that every lawmaker can support," Creighton said.