Texas House’s version of the Senate’s voucher bill would change eligibility and replace STAAR test

The Texas House's education committee is soon expected to consider a new 80-page version of the Senate’s priority school voucher proposal, which would reduce the number of students who are eligible to the program, make changes to the state’s standardized test and remove the bill’s restriction on teaching about gender and sexual orientation.

But some lawmakers' hope to move it quickly so it can get a full vote at the House was dashed when the lower chamber temporarily blocked the committee from meeting Wednesday night to consider whether to advance the new version of the bill.

The House denied state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, chair of the committee, his request to meet with a 65-76 vote after Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd, questioned why the committee was trying to vote on a bill without a public hearing.

"You're trying to bring an 80-page substitution to this body and force a vote without thoughtful deliberation," Bailes said.

Buckley's rationale for not wanting to hear any more testimony on the bill was that the committee had already hold a 16-hour public meeting a month ago on several House bills that also sought to establish voucher-like programs.

After the House blocked a meeting on Wednesday, the committee announced it will give the bill a hearing on Monday, but will only listen to invited testimony.

House committees have until May 20 to vote out Senate bills. After the vote Wednesday night, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the author of the Senate's version of the legislation, wrote in a tweet that he remains committed to seeing his bill get signed into law, saying he believes that most Texans 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," he wrote.

Senate Bill 8 passed the Senate last month. Its centerpiece is an education savings account program that would work like voucher programs and direct state funds to help Texas families pay for private schooling. The version of the bill approved by the Senate would be open to most K-12 students in Texas and would give parents who opt out of the public school system up to $8,000 in taxpayer money per student each year. These funds could be used to pay for a child’s private schooling and other educational expenses, such as textbooks or tutoring.

The House version of SB 8, the details of which were first reported by The Texas Tribune, adds specific criteria to which students would be eligible to enter the program. The bill says the program would be limited to certain students like those with a disability, those who are "educationally disadvantaged" — meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch — or those who attend a campus that received a grade of D or lower in its accountability rating in the last two school years. A child would also be eligible if they have a sibling in the program.

Under the proposal, a large portion of Texas students would be eligible. About 60% of Texas’s 5.5 million students qualify for free or reduced lunch and kids in special education programs account for 12% of the total student population. Last year, about 7% of all school campuses graded received a D or lower, but were labeled "not rated" because of coronavirus interruptions.

The issue of "school choice" has been a top priority for Gov. Greg Abbott this year. He has traveled the state making the case that Texas public schools are pushing "woke" ideologies on students, and that families should have the ability to send their children elsewhere. Longtime school supporters of voucher-like programs also argue that students attending failing schools should have the ability to send their kids to more successful schools, and that the competition that vouchers would provide would incentivize all schools to get better.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at UT-Austin, said the bill looks to sweeten the deal for the House, which has been historically against voucher programs. But the concern lies that private schools are not required to take students with disabilities and the amount of money offered isn’t close to enough needed to educate these students.

"It's a false promise," he said. "The private schools are going to take students who don’t have disabilities and are not more expensive to educate and the public schools are going to be left with fewer kids and fewer dollars and still have to meet all the needs of the students with the most severe needs."

The House version would also require students in the program to take a state assessment test, potentially adding a degree of accountability that critics have said was sorely missing.

In addition, the bill would make changes to the annual stipends that families enrolled in the program get. It would give them about $10,500 a year if their child is educationally disadvantaged and has a disability, $9,000 if their child is educationally disadvantaged and $7,500 for every other child.

The bill will still face stiff opposition from public education advocates, who argue that while it reduces the number of students who would be eligible to the program, the higher annual stipends that participating parents would get could end up costing the state more than the Senate's version.

The Senate version of SB 8 severely restricted classroom lessons, campus activities and educator guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in public and charter schools up to 12th grade, with very limited exceptions. Creighton has previously told the Tribune that the bill packaged education saving accounts and these restrictions together because parents he talked to view these issues as "inextricably linked."

The House’s version eliminates those restrictions — but the provision is not dead.

Lawmakers can still amend the legislation, and it’s unclear whether they intend to add back the restrictions into the final version of the bill before it comes for a vote. The lower chamber is also considering Senate Bill 1072, part of which mirrors SB 8’s language on this issue. This bill, authored by Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, passed out of the upper chamber earlier this month and is currently waiting for a hearing in the House Public Education Committee.

The proposal is similar to a ban passed in Florida in 2022, which its opponents have dubbed the "Don’t Say Gay" law. Last month, the Sunshine State also extended those restrictions from third grade to 12th grade. And like in Florida, critics in Texas have warned that the legislation would stop schools from acknowledging the LGBTQ community’s existence and prevent students from learning about a wide range of issues from marriage equality and the AIDS epidemic to women’s suffrage. They also say it would infringe on students’ free speech protections, especially their right to receive information.

The Texas House’s version of SB 8 also eliminates a Senate provision that sought to give districts with fewer than 20,000 students $10,000 for five years for every child who enrolls in the savings account program and leaves their district. The provision was seen as a way to convince Texans in rural communities to support the bill, but they have remained largely unswayed. While public education advocates had criticized the provision as a poor attempt to gain rural Republicans’ support for the voucher program, they said eliminating it would leave school districts in a more vulnerable position if the bill becomes law.

In addition, this version of SB 8 calls for changes to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, more commonly known as the STAAR. No later than the 2027-2028 school year, the Texas Education Agency would be tasked with creating a new test that would be more aligned with what children learn in the classroom. The new test would be called the Texas Success Initiative Assessment.

And instead of it being one test, the House version requires the TEA to spread the evaluation in three parts, given during different times of the year. Students in grades 3-8 would be required to take it.

This method has already been piloted in several school districts across the state. The TSIA is currently a test colleges give to high school students to determine what classes they should be in.

For high schoolers, the bill eliminates "end-of-course" STAAR tests. Instead, kids in ninth grade would take a pre-TSIA test, and in 11th grade, they would take the full test to assess what college courses they should be taking.

The legislation also removes the requirement that high schoolers need to pass an assessment to graduate. Failing the assessment would not bar students from receiving a high school diploma under this version.

The changes may make it easier for SB 8 to eventually become law as several House members on both sides have supported STAAR reform. But anything with a voucher program attached — even one with a notably reduced scope — would still face a tough battle in the lower chamber.

In April, the House voted 86-52 for a budget amendment that barred the state from using funds to pay for school vouchers. The vote was largely symbolic but it demonstrated the widespread opposition to voucher-like programs in the lower chamber, even if support has grown in the past two years.

Democrats and rural Republicans have banded together in the past to oppose voucher-like programs as they fear they could take away money from their local school districts. Because Texas school districts receive state funds based on student attendance, they receive less money when any student leaves.

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