School choice, border bills start to move in Special Session 4

Another attempt to push through a "school choice" plan got started at the Texas Capitol. 

A marathon hearing started Thursday morning on a complex education funding bill, HB 1, that provides additional money for teacher pay and even more money for parents to send their kids to private schools.

The hearing kicked off with HB 1 being described as 40 different education funding bills in one. It includes money for special education programs, as well as increasing the basic allotment the state provides for public schools. In theory, local school boards would use the funding to increase teacher pay. There is also a one-time pay bonus for teachers. The extra money in HB 1 was done to help push through the school choice part of the bill, which is known as Education Savings Accounts. 

"Over the last several months, the debate over education in Texas has been framed in an either-or manner," said State Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), who filed HB 1. "Either you support public education or you support parental choice. I reject that premise."

The legislation was rewritten for Special Session 4 and changes ESAs from a pilot program to being open to any student. In the regular session, $500 million was earmarked to pay for the first year, which equals to about $10,000 for each student who gets enrolled.     

During the hearing it was revealed that demand for ESAs is expected to increase five percent each year. By 2026, it's calculated almost $2 billion will be needed to keep the ESA program funded. Those opposed say the program is welfare for the rich.

"So it is possible that under this bill, that CEOs send two kids to an elite four-year private high school would get a little over $80,000 a year. That's possible," said state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock).

Huffman ISD Superintendent Benny Soileau, in his testimony, urged committee members to break up the bill.

"We ask this committee to consider the following; one, detach vouchers from the school funding bill and allow each to stand on its own merit as separate bills. And number two, while addressing funding, increases to the basic allotment, include built in inflationary drivers to address rising costs, supply chain issues and overall inflation rates," Soileau said. "Texas currently ranks in the top ten economies in the world, yet we remain in the bottom ten states in per student funding. Unless and until we address the funding needs of our public schools, vouchers should not be the driver for school funding."


State Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) questioned why providing parents with an option was considered a bad thing.

"Because really what we're saying is if you kind of right now, what we say is if you can afford to go do something else, then go do something else. Right. That's because that's really the only option. It's like, either be here, or go, if you can afford it," said Frank.

Superintendent Soileau responded by saying they have never offered that kind of advice.

The hearing on HB1 was scheduled to go until midnight and pick up again on Friday. 

Members of the House State Affairs committee also took up another controversial bill. HB 4 would allow local law enforcement officers to arrest undocumented immigrants. It moved out of committee to the full House on an 8 to 4 vote.

Members of the State Senate spent little to no time dealing with public testimony on their bills. On Thursday afternoon, legislation was fast tracked out of committee and sent to the Senate Floor for Debate. SB 3 was approved on a straight party line vote.

SB 2 was the next to move forward. It provides additional money for school districts and money for a teacher pay raise.

School Choice in the Senate, like HB 1, is described as a Universal Program, but is being offered as a stand-alone bill. The floor debate went into Thursday evening.

The Senate version of HB 4 is SB 4.