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School choice bill advancing to full Texas Senate... or is it?

A substitute for Senate Bill 3 – the school choice/voucher bill that would create two public programs to subsidize private school tuition – passed out of the Texas Senate Education Committee Thursday on a 7-3 vote, but its author - Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) - who called SB 3's hearing "one of the most unpredictable hearings that I’ve ever seen," says the votes aren't there yet to bring it to the Senate floor.

SB 3 would establish educational savings accounts (ESAs) and tax credit scholarships to fund various costs for children whose parents move them out of public schools. Under the bill, a family wishing to use an ESA would receive 60 percent to 90 percent of the money, and the public school their child would have attended would get the remainder. “Parents could use the accounts for private school tuition, educational software and tutoring, but the bill prohibits the purchase of things such as food and child care. SB 3 would also allow low-income students to qualify for tax credit scholarships for school costs, and businesses which contribute to the fund would receive a tax break,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

The new substitute that passed on Thursday made several changes and supposedly reduced the fiscal note, although the fiscal note had not yet been filed. Changes made the to the bill in this substitute included:

  • Changing the original payment from August 15 to September 1 to align with the fiscal year

  • Capping the tax credit scholarship at $100 million

  • Deleting a 10 percent increase per year

  • Funding per student instead of per student, per average daily attendance

A Texas Education Agency representative was on hand to address questions from the committee Thursday. He said there would be a savings of $250 million over the next five years, and the cost to implement SB 3 would be $400 million, resulting in a five-year cost of about $150 million. He added that costs would be lower in this version of the bill because numbers are based on enrollment rather than attendance.

Thursday’s discussion on SB 3 came two days after 14 hours of testimony on the issue. On Tuesday, supporters of the bill represented and referred to other states that have implemented statewide voucher programs, saying Texas should “catch up.” Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) had the sharpest rebuke, questioning the bill's supporters on the costs of the measure. Again on Thursday, he asked how much the state will lose due to tax credits to businesses that donate to scholarships for ESAs under SB 3, and budget experts estimated it is around $50 million a year. West also asked if there would be a negative impact on the Foundation School Program, but TEA couldn’t answer that without the fiscal note.

Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) also raised concerns about money Thursday, claiming this is the largest fiscal note in a bill not being considered by the Senate Finance Committee. Seliger is also worried that SB 3 contains no accountability standards for schools receiving funds, and that it makes way for religious indoctrination should an Islamic school open and teach “anti-American, anti-Christian” curriculum.

On Tuesday, the Texas Latino Education Coalition, Senate Hispanic Caucus, Mexican American Legislative Caucus and NAACP gathered outside the Capitol shortly after the hearing ended and announced their unified opposition to SB 3, saying it “would create private school vouchers, which have a racist past. They said that voucher systems were used once in Texas as a way to resist the desegregation of schools. ‘The purpose of vouchers is to ensure that affluent white children do not have to go to school with African-American or Latino children,’ said Gary Bledsoe, president of NAACP Texas. ‘Segregated schools are breeding grounds for racism,’” the Austin-American Statesman reports.

Controversy around the bill has been brewing also over claims from House members that they’ve received fraudulent letters addressed from constituents asking them to back the ESAs. “State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was suspicious when his office fielded 520 letters between mid-February and mid-March from constituents of his rural district, who are more likely to oppose private school choice than support it. All the letters were addressed from Austin and had the full names and addresses of each constituent at the bottom,” according to the Texas Tribune.

Charter schools were frequently mentioned during the testimony on Tuesday, but Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby reminded people that SB 3 is not about charters:

Sens. Seliger, West and Tomas Uresti (D-San Antonio) were the “nay” votes on Thursday when the committee passed the substitute. According to the Quorum Report, "Chairman Taylor openly admitted after the meeting that he does not have the votes to get the combination education savings account/tax-credit scholarship bill to the floor of the Senate, but he is optimistic some version of school choice could make it through both chambers by session’s end."

“We are continuing to work on this bill as it gets out of committee," Taylor said.

Drive West will continue following this bill and others related to Texas education for the duration of this legislative session. For updates, sign up for our email list.

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