School Choice Bill Altered in Texas House

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, gavels the House into session at the state Capitol in Austin on April 11, 2023. | Image by Evan L'Roy, The Texas Tribune

The battle over school choice legislation in Austin may be heading to a special legislative session after the Texas House Committee on Public Education moved to consider a revised version of the bill put forward by the Texas Senate.

SB 8 originally called for education savings accounts for attendance at private schools, allotting up to $8,000 of taxpayer money to each student whose parents wanted to pull them out of public school.

However, a new version of the bill, which the House Committee on Public Education will consider on Monday, limits who can qualify for the accounts and drops a provision that restricts “instruction regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The new bill also proposes significant changes to state testing and removes a stipulation that would have paid out thousands in taxpayer dollars to rural public school systems for each student that leaves.

Some observers claimed further changes to the bill would not be well received by the Texas Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott, who said enacting school choice legislation was a top priority of his this legislative session, as previously reported in The Dallas Express.

“[A]s the House puts in poison pills, which for them would be things like private schools having to take anyone who applies, not being able to exclude students with disabilities or with … discipline problems, then I think you’ll see the lieutenant governor and governor balk and say we’ll just deal with this in June or July,” said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University, speaking with Fox 4.

Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), who wrote the original version of SB 8, took to Twitter to reaffirm his commitment to passing some kind of school choice legislation. However, he did not appear to signal how amenable he was to the new House version of the bill.

“I remain committed to the Texas Parental Bill of Rights, because lawmakers know that Texans overwhelmingly support school choice. This session is a once in a generation opportunity to unleash the potential of education freedom, and I am confident there is still time to empower parents, lift up Texas teachers and to give Texas students the options they deserve,” Creighton tweeted.

Still, it is unclear if the full House will move to adopt the new bill, as a significant bloc of big-city Democrats and Republicans from rural districts have historically aligned against using taxpayer money to pay private school tuition or fees.

Those in the anti-school choice bloc believe that such legislation would directly lead to the “defunding” of public school districts since state funding of education is tied to student attendance.

Even with the new House version of the bill limiting who could take advantage of an education savings account, there could be significant repercussions for big districts like the Dallas Independent School District (DISD).

The House version allows for students attending campuses that have been given an overall D or F accountability rating by the Texas Education Agency to enroll in better schools of their parents’ choosing with some taxpayer support.

As previously reported in The Dallas Express, many of DISD’s schools have been struggling academically and could ostensibly lose many students whose parents want a better alternative for their children’s education.

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