New school choice plan awaits lawmakers after Texas House vote

The Texas House chamber on Wednesday was closed to the public and the empty chairs inside provided an uneasy calm after Friday’s political storm. 

It left school choice supporters, like state Rep. Jacey Jetton (R-Katy), doing some damage control.

"I think just this week we're going to have some time to kind of let the dust settle a little bit with Thanksgiving and enjoy some time with our families. And, you know, next week we'll be back up in Austin," said Jetton.

Jetton quickly filed HB 115 in an effort to reboot the school choice debate. He admits, with little time left in Special Session 4, it's a long shot. That's why his bill does not include teacher pay, an item he believes has side-tracked previous debates.

"We want to make this as plain and simple as possible. Here's what the education saving account portion part looks like, and start the discussion there," said Rep. Jetton.

This long-running fight under the Texas capitol dome is certainly being watched by a lot of people. Even congressional leaders are tracking the debate, like U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

"I understand some of the rural legislators who felt like that was not the right vote for them in their district, because of the impact of those school districts on the economy, on jobs and the like," said Cornyn.


Cornyn, who was in Austin on Tuesday handing out holiday dinner packets to families in need, described school choice as a positive thing. He also pointed out that the idea of giving students government money for things like paying for tuition, is not new.

"There's a real anomaly in our education system. If you want to go to college, you can get a Pell Grant. You can borrow money. If you don't, you can't afford it. Otherwise, you can go to the school of your choice. To me, that seems like a pretty good model and certainly so certainly having tax dollars be used for a private school or some other school other than the district you live in doesn't strike me as a novel approach," said Cornyn.

During the regular session, the GOP-controlled legislature set aside a half billion dollars for a school choice plan. That vote continues to raise questions like: how is this conservative, how is this being a Republican, and isn’t this creating a huge government financial giveaway. 

Jetton offered a response to those questions.

"When you put the government in control of pay, it can only go to their school, based on your zip code or geographical location. And there's only opportunities you have for your tax dollars go to it. That's not, that's not freedom," said Jetton.


HB 115 would provide $11,500 to students who qualify. In the first year, it's estimated only about 25,000 students could get the money. Low income and special needs students will be at the front of the line, said Jetton.

"These funds are primarily going to students that are not currently in private school. This would provide new opportunities for our children to be able to attend private school," said Jetton.

Democrats who oppose school choice claimed the vouchers would be eaten up by more wealthy kids. Jetton countered that accusation by restating his position that those who need the help the most will be a priority. 

The ESA proposals filed in the Texas Legislature to date are not a full school choice plan. Jetton was asked why he and other proponents do not push a plan where actual school tax dollars follow the student.

"That is a real school choice. And that's the direction, that is the ultimate goal," said Jetton.

The comments by Cornyn could help achieve that "ultimate goal" by being in contrast to the harsh reactions of other GOP leaders. Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened to call more Special Sessions, and he recently endorsed a group of House republicans who tried to save the school choice legislation.