A member of the Texas House of Representatives votes on the opening day of the 88th Legislature (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Public school advocates are calling it a shady, backroom maneuver. Late Sunday night, a Senate committee replaced the House of Representatives’ school funding bill, HB 100, with one of their own.
The new HB 100 is similar to the House’s bill but with a huge difference: It includes Gov. Greg Abbott’s voucher proposal – the same one the House roundly defeated in March. Twelve hours after the bill was set for hearing, it cleared the Senate Education Committee on a party line vote: 9 Republicans for, 3 Democrats against.
The new bill still raises state funding for schools – barely. With the Senate’s tweaks, the minimum figure that schools will get per enrolled pupil, referred to as the “basic allotment,” will go from 2019’s level of $6,106 per student to $6,210. The House’s version was $6,250 per pupil, but even that is miles away from the $7,325 that educators say is needed to keep up with inflation.
But it is the last-minute addition of vouchers that has disgusted public-school advocates. “Schools are in crisis and now, with a week left, [Lieutenant Governor] Dan Patrick corrupts the House school finance bill w/massive voucher,” wrote State Rep. Gina Hinojosa on Twitter. “I’m not just a ‘no,’ I’m a ‘Hell, no.’”
Conservatives in Texas have proposed vouchers for generations – the concept of taking public education money to help parents pay for private school has often been supported by religious extremists and white supremacists. But until recent years most mainstream elected Republicans have been indifferent. This session, Abbott made vouchers – which he refers to as “school choice” – his number one priority (perhaps because they are also the number one priority of West Texas billionaires and campaign donors Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks). Under Abbott’s plan, parents who opt their kids out of public school would receive $8,000 of public school money per child, per school year, to help pay tuition.
Abbott argues that shifting this money from public to private schools will not impact the public education system. Supporters of public education say of course it will, and it will further segregate public schools because private schools aren’t required to accept all students and they’re unaffordable for the vast majority, even with $8,000 subsidies.
Katie Kizer, social media coordinator for the progressive Access Education RRISD, spoke against the voucher provision on Monday morning. “I tried to bring it all back to our district,” Kizer said. “You know, we’re having to consolidate some of our fine arts classes. We’re having to trim a lot of stuff, like the library assistants, some coaching assistants. It’s a lot of small cuts all across the district.”
Kizer noted that this year’s school finance bill began in the House with additional money for the basic allotment formula. But those extra dollars have been stripped away. “They started off planning for our budget with $300 dollars added to the basic allotment, and then it was $190, and now we’re down to $50. And it feels like they’re just gutting public education, while at the same time trying to take from it.”
The Senate’s addition of vouchers in HB 100 and the reductions in the basic allotment are expected to set the stage for a confrontation with the House in the session’s final days. The bill will likely get a quick approval in the Senate, then move to the lower chamber. There, legislators could very well strip out the voucher component before approving it. The two chambers would then appoint a conference committee to hash out the differences between the two bills.
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