Texas school voucher program hearing held amid veto threat
AUSTIN, Texas - The House Public Education Committee proposed getting rid of the STARR test, an exam Texas students must pass to advance in grade and graduate. This became a key part of a rewrite on Senate Bill 8.
"The STAAR test would be completely eliminated no later than the 2027-28 subject to federal approval of new assessment," said committee chairman Brad Buckley (R-Salado).
The proposal to replace the STAAR test with a new process in a new draft of SB 8 is essentially a political carrot. An attempt to revive a school voucher program called education savings accounts.
"This substitute establishes accountability related to the ESA program, participating students that receive funding are required to take the same standardized assessments that will be administered to a peer in a traditional public school," said Chairman Buckley.
The House, earlier in the session, rejected the idea of putting a voucher plan into the state budget. That sentiment was voiced again Monday, May 15 by State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio).
"ESA or voucher provisions, you can put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig," said state Rep. Allison.
Committee members like state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), who have called for testing reform, raised concerns about the timing of this last minute maneuver.
"These are important topics, changes to our testing and accountability system, are very important to our system, and I don’t think they should be used as a bargaining chip in discussions about vouchers," said state Rep. Talarico.
Sunday, May 14, Governor Greg Abbott, in a statement posted online, urged lawmakers to send him a school choice bill to sign. The governor threatened to call a special session if lawmakers fail to comply, or they send him a watered down version of the original Senate plan.
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"Abbott is playing hardball here," said political analyst Brian Smith from St. Edwards University.
The governor can win the fight, according to Smith, even if the voucher issue fails during the regular session.
"He's going to use that time to make deals to get people online with other special session items. So that's a way that the governor can get what he wants. And then also the entrenched legislators are then able maybe to get what they want in the special session. But again, legislators are going to have to face the voters on this," said Smith.
During the hearing, committee member Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian) sparred with public school advocates over who will benefit from school choice.
"Right now, rich Texas families have educational options, educational freedom, and on average poor Texas families do not," said Harrison.
State Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) doubted vouchers will help and argued investing more into public schools was the answer.
"When you say it’s going to solve education, think about everybody, everybody, rich kids, poor kids middle class kids think about everybody and think about them sincerely you are not providing anything for poor kids," said state Rep. Allen.
The hearing ended with SB 8 left pending before the committee. May 20 is considered to be the last day for a Senate Bill to be moved out of a House Committee.