School voucher bill hangs by a thread as key deadline approaches

With a key deadline looming and fierce opposition from all sides, the odds for the latest version of the Texas Senate’s priority school voucher bill are looking bleak.

Senate Bill 8, authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, appears to be in danger of dying in the House public education committee, which must approve a bill before it goes to the House floor for a full vote. The committee’s chair, state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that he currently has no plans to bring the bill for a vote after Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to veto it.

"It begs the question of — with this threat — is this the legislation to move forward?" Buckley told the Tribune.

On Sunday, Abbott voiced his disapproval of the House version of the bill, which significantly rolls back eligibility for the legislation’s proposed voucher program. While the Senate’s bill wanted it to be available for most of Texas’ 5.5 million public schoolchildren, the House’s version would be for only certain groups of students, like those with disabilities or those who attended a campus that has recently gotten a failing grade in its state accountability rating.

Abbott, who has made school vouchers his top cause this session and has traveled across the state advocating for them, said he would call lawmakers in for a special session if the House didn’t "expand the scope of school choice" this month.

The House Committee on Public Education, along with every other committee in the lower chamber, has until May 20 to vote out Senate bills before they can hit the House floor.

The education committee met Monday to hear invited testimony on the third iteration of SB 8, but Buckley did not bring it up for a vote that day or the next one, when the committee met again.

Things can change fast in the final days of a legislative session as leaders negotiate over an array of bills, so the proposal’s fate won’t be sealed until lawmakers leave town. But it will still be a major hurdle to pass through the House a bill that can bring together enough supporters and critics of school vouchers.

Earlier this session, the House passed a budget amendment that would prohibit the use of state funds for "school vouchers or other similar programs." While largely symbolic, the vote showed the House still lacks the appetite for vouchers.

And last week, when Buckley tried to advance a vote on SB 8, the House voted to not let the public education committee meet.

As the House’s Saturday deadline approaches, Creighton said in a statement that he isn’t giving up on his legislation or school choice yet.

"My goal remains to work with the House to deliver significant education freedom for families to make decisions for their kids that aren’t restricted by an address or ZIP code," he said.

SB 8 seeks to introduce a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts, which parents who opt out of their local school district would be able to use to pay for private schools and other educational expenses with taxpayer dollars.

Buckley’s version of the bill would also eliminate the highly debated State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the STAAR program — and replace it with a new test that would be more aligned with what children learn in the classroom. The legislation also removes the requirement that high schoolers need to pass an assessment to graduate.

These changes were seemingly an effort to get more House members, specifically Democrats and rural Republicans, to vote for SB 8. This bipartisan coalition fears that voucher-like programs would siphon funds away from public schools and have successfully killed these proposals for decades.

"I’m hopeful that our coalition that defeated vouchers this session will stay united and in any special sessions that are called this year," said state Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin.

Zach Despart contributed to this story.

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