Texas lawmakers poised to fight over school vouchers as bill filing begins

[Dallas Morning News] Texas lawmakers poised to fight over school vouchers as bill filing begins

At least one of hundreds of bills filed by lawmakers Monday ahead of the upcoming legislative session would allow parents to use public funds to pay for private school or other approved educational expenses.

The bill, SB 176, filed by Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, would establish the “Texas Parental Empowerment Program,” or an education savings account program to be administered by the state comptroller.

A similar bill, HB 619, was also filed in the House Monday by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano. Shaheen’s proposal would give tax credits to those contributing to eligible educational assistance organizations, such as donating to a private school’s scholarship fund.

Education savings accounts, more commonly known as school vouchers, are one type of controversial school choice program that allows parents to use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools instead of public schools.

Middleton’s bill says that “parents should be empowered to direct the education of their child” and that money earmarked for education should follow “the child to the

educational option that best meets their unique educational needs.”

Many have anticipated efforts to push voucher legislation this session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has raised the issue on the campaign trail in recent months, including proposing specifics such as “bracketing out” rural areas and limiting a voucher program to urban areas.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who won reelection to a third term last week, has also touted his school choice agenda. Abbott made parental rights a cornerstone of his reelection campaign and has previously said he supports voucher-like efforts for families to use public funds toward private schools.

In August, he voiced his support for school choice at a South Dallas private school.

Middleton’s proposal would allow any student eligible to attend a Texas public school to apply for the program. if accepted, funds would be directly given to the student’s family and could be used to pay for private school tuition, online courses, tutoring, computers or textbooks, among other approved uses.

Rep. Cody Vasut, R-Angleton, also filed a bill Monday that would allow parents to be reimbursed for qualifying education expenses each year, including private school tuition, tutoring or education therapies or services for a child with a disability.

By 6 p.m., Texas lawmakers had filed more than 900 bills for the upcoming session. Dozens deal with education-related issues including sex education, mental health services and civic education. More school choice-related bills are expected.

Many also pertain to school safety, which is anticipated to be a contentious topic next year following a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in May that left 19 students and two teachers dead and has been followed by intense scrutiny and investigation.

While lawmakers filed bills Monday, nearly a dozen advocates for and against school voucher-like programs appeared at a hearing of the Texas Commission on Special Education Funding.

The commission was established to recommend changes that could improve funding for special education in public schools across the state but debated education savings accounts late into the evening Monday.

The debate, which focused on micro-grant or voucher-like programs specifically geared toward students with disabilities or special needs that might not be able to be met in public school settings could foreshadow the debates expected next year.

Several parents and experts ardently promoted establishing voucher programs, which currently exist in some form in about 28 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., arguing that they incentivize improvement for both private and public schools and allow students to be educated somewhere that meets their needs.

Opponents counter that they divert limited funding from already underfunded public schools and exacerbate problems like school segregation or disparities in the quality of education some students receive.

Several successful school choice programs, including vouchers, education savings accounts and tax credit programs in other states began as small-scale programs targeted at students with disabilities and later expanded to encompass larger student groups.

The commission is expected to adopt recommendations in December. The 88th Legislature begins Jan. 10.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks,Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.