Texas Senate committee revamps school funding bill to revive voucher-like proposal

A Senate committee on Monday morning will consider a new version of a House bill that would infuse school districts with billions of dollars, but also establish a voucher-like program in an effort to avoid a special session.

The Texas Tribune reviewed a summary of the new bill as the full proposal was not yet available.

The Senate Committee on Education chaired by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, will hear testimony for House Bill 100, authored by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, at 8 a.m. The bill originally intended to allocate $4.5 billion in new funding for schools to give teachers raises and balance school budgets as inflation diminished the value of the money they get from the state.

Now, the bill would also establish an education savings account program, which 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 program would be open to most of Texas’ 5.5 million students — including those already in private schools — with a priority given to students that attended a school that received a C or lower in the state’s accountability program.

The new version of HB 100 is an effort from the Senate to pass a voucher-like program in the final days of the Legislative session, which ends on May 29th. Gov. Greg Abbott last week said he would call a special session if lawmakers didn’t pass a voucher program that was open to a large number of families.

Earlier this session, Senate lawmakers tried to pass a more universal voucher program through Senate Bill 8, authored by Creighton. It would’ve established a similar program as the one outlined in HB 100, but the House Committee on Public Education changed the scope of the program to be more limited.

It ended up dying in committee after Abbott said he’d veto the watered-down bill with Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, and chair of the House education committee, telling The Texas Tribune that he questioned whether it was worth bringing the bill up for a vote after Abbott’s threat.

Some Republicans for decades have tried to pass voucher-like programs with no success — historically hitting a wall: the Texas House. But the bill’s supporters felt different this time around as they thought the theme of parental rights — something Republicans have seized since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns temporarily closed schools — would get them over the hump.

In the House, Democrats and rural Republicans have formed a coalition to defeat such programs, fearing that would siphon funds away from public schools as Texas gives schools money per student.

Other than the education savings account, the new version of HB 100 would increase the basic allotment by $50, which is the minimum money that schools get per student. That amount is currently $6,160. This is a smaller increase than the $90 that the House originally proposed.

The basic allotment has not changed since 2019, and raising it has been a priority for school officials after the COVID-19 pandemic rattled their finances and inflation diminished the value of the money they get from the state. At the beginning of the legislative session, school districts expressed hope that lawmakers would direct a portion of the state’s historic $32.7 billion surplus to help them.

The new bill would raise the portion of the state dollars that school districts are required to use to pay for teacher raises from 30% to 50%. The rest can be used for other school expenses, such as maintaining school buildings and buying necessary school supplies.

The latest version also updates the base amount of money that teachers should make depending on their experience. It also adds provisions from other bills to tackle the state’s teacher shortage such as allocating funds to help school districts pay for more teacher residencies, which are programs that place would-be teachers in classrooms with mentors for about a year, teaching them how to do the job before hiring as full-time educators the following year.

The bill would add funding for school districts to rehire retired teachers who, if they can be convinced to return to the profession, are seen as a promising way to help stem the teacher shortage. School officials have not hired retirees because it would mean either the district or the retiree must pay a larger contribution to the Teacher Retirement System.

Finally, the bill seeks to allocate $300 million in special education funding.

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