A Senate committee passed the House’s major school finance reform bill, after adding a controversial provision subsidizing private school tuition for special needs students — a move unlikely to go over well in the House.
by, Aliyya Swaby
*Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
The Senate Education Committee Thursday passed the House’s major school finance reform bill, after adding a controversial provision subsidizing private school tuition for special needs students — a move unlikely to go over well in the House.
After a few hours of public testimony on the Senate’s version of House Bill 21, the panel voted 7-1 to adopt the bill. The committee’s chairman, and sponsor of the measure, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said the Senate version would cost much less than the House version — which has been pegged at around $1.6 billion over two years. Public education advocates who expected to speak in favor of HB 21 ended up switching their position to oppose it once they heard it included tuition subsidies for students with disabilities.
The bill now goes to the full Senate.
House members have expressed their overwhelming opposition to any subsidies for private schools.
“Are they really willing to vote no on the bill that does all those positive things because of one part they don’t like?” Taylor told the Tribune. “For the most part, districts won’t be affected by this at all.”
As passed out of the House in late April after a four-hour debate, HB 21 would simplify some of the complex formulas for allocating money to public schools and target bilingual and dyslexic students for more funding. The Legislative Budget Board estimated the bill would give more money to about 96 percent of districts.
House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said passing the bill would be a historic step for the Texas Legislature, which has never voted for school finance reform without the pressure of a court order. The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the school finance system in Texas was in need of serious reform, but ultimately constitutional.
The Senate’s version of the bill includes many of the same changes that could help certain disadvantaged student groups as well as small, rural schools struggling to keep their doors open. It also rolls in an education savings account program, which would give parents of kids with disabilities access to online accounts of state funds to use for private school tuition and other education expenses. It would give qualified students about $7,000 per year.
“I know people are surprised right now,” Taylor said, as witness after witness said they had changed their stance. “I hope you’ll take a little moment to step back over the next day or so to realize the totality of what this bill means.”
Taylor read out a list of school districts in each senator’s region that needed the state to intervene and reform their special education policies.
“I think some of these schools are doing a great job,” Taylor said. “We also had testimony from parents who were very dissatisfied and talked about arguing with their school districts for years and years.”
House members are unlikely to approve any bill that includes private school tuition subsidies. Most, including Huberty, voted to defund these tuition subsidy programs during a debate on the House budget.
“We’re not going to pass a bill that’s got a voucher in it — and that’s been a contingency for the Senate to act,” Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, who sits on the House Public Education Committee, said earlier this week. “So I don’t have a lot of faith that [HB] 21 will get to the governor’s desk.”
Public education advocates who testified Thursday at the Senate panel said they would rather have the House version of the bill, without education savings accounts.
Heather Sheffield, a parent of two dyslexic kids, said she is concerned that students with disabilities who attend private schools would be losing their federal rights to adequate special education services. “Please fund public education adequately,” she asked committee members.
“Parents have legal recourse in public schools, and they lose that in private schools,” said Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel for Texas American Federation of Teachers.
Laura Colangelo, president of the Texas Private Schools Association, argued private schools are held accountable through contracts with parents to provide kids with disabilities with the proper services.
The bill includes a provision to help districts relying on a $400 million state aid program that is set to expire in September. HB 21 lets the program expire and creates a transitional grant program over the next two years to help school districts that would lose money.
Taylor’s version of the bill would decrease the total amount of that grant program from $200 million to $159 million over the next two years. The Senate has budgeted for less overall money in public education than the House, and the chambers are now conferencing to debate the final numbers.
“We don’t have that,” Taylor said, of the additional funds the House had wanted to attach to the bill. It does not yet have a fiscal note.
This story originally published by The Texas Tribune.