AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Two of the key Republicans leading the negotiations in the House on a plan to subsidize private school education with taxpayer dollars are seeking to create an omnibus bill that also increases funding to public schools, but they said Thursday that isn’t probable without the governor’s stamp of approval.
Lawmakers kicked off the third special session with little progress negotiating on one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s keynote priorities that failed during the regular session: passing an education savings account program (ESA). It would allow Texas parents to receive money to use for private school education.
It’s been a goal for certain conservatives that gained traction after the COVID-19 pandemic, saying voucher-like programs will give parents more options if they are dissatisfied by their public schools. The proposal has been met with fierce criticism from Democrats and public school advocates, who say it diverts dollars that could be spent bolstering Texas schools that are accountable to taxpayers, unlike private entities.
Reporters asked Chairman Brad Buckley, R-Salado, if the House Education Committee would be meeting soon to consider an education savings account plan, but he said lawmakers “cannot do anything until [Abbott] expands the call” in reference to the special session agenda that is set by the governor.
It comes after the Senate swiftly passed a bill that would allocate $500 million for the next two years of the program, allowing eligible students to receive up to $8,000 to help pay for the costs of private or charter schools. The school choice program would be housed by the state comptroller’s office, which would be responsible for preventing fraud and misuse of the money. The Senate also passed a separate bill that would $5.2 billion in additional school funding.
Buckley’s comments were reiterated by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, another key lawmaker working to whip up votes in support of the measure. Previously, House Speaker Dade Phelan had suggested the only way the House would pass an ESA program is if the Legislature also passes a bill to increase teacher salaries and overall funding to public schools.
“I think it’s fairly natural to tie those two things together…it will be relatively broad and include a significant amount of money for public schools,” Frank said. “If that’s the only bill that can move, then we kind of need the call expanded. At the same time, we can file the bill and then wait for the governor to expand the call.”
But Abbott signaled he does not plan to include broad public school funding in his special session call until the House reaches a deal on his ESA priority.
The governor’s press secretary, Andrew Mahaleris, said in an email statement: “We continue to have productive conversations with House members. The Governor looks forward to reaching an agreement on school choice, at which point he will gladly expand the call.”
Republicans have not filed the bill yet, but suggested it could be finalized in the coming days. Frank suggested there have been lots of changes to the original drafts during the regular session.
But any changes will be met with likely resistance from the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his Republican members have long supported school choice. In an interview with Nexstar last month, Patrick suggested it’s up to the governor and the speaker to broker a deal.
“The governor and the speaker have to come to an agreement,” he said. “We’re not going to accept some watered-down bill, but it’s really what is the governor willing to sign in? If the governor says you’re not going to sign it, then the House needs to go back to the drawing board.”
Rural GOP members and Democrats band together against ESAs
At a press conference Thursday morning, House Democrats again voiced their disdain for any voucher-like program while rolling out their broad proposal to boost public school funding.
Democratic Caucus Leader Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said their effort to block the education savings account program is not partisan.
“There are people who believe in public education, public schools, and there is a public school coalition of Republicans and Democrats that are standing united against vouchers,” he said. “Democrats have said we are willing and able to meet and discuss how we improve our public education system without being leveraged and having our arms twisted on a voucher scam.”
Their proposal for school funding would give Texas teachers a $15,000 pay raise as well as a $5,500 bonus to support staff members. Additionally, the legislation would raise the basic allotment, which is per-student funding in the state, by $2,787 in order to bring Texas up to the national average.
Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd, is one of the Republicans who has been opposed to any form of vouchers or an education savings account program. He said Buckley met Thursday with a group of about two dozen Republicans who have been opposed to or on the fence about the conservative priority. He was unable to attend the meeting due to a conflicting committee hearing, but said he has been kept in the loop about negotiations despite his position.
“We were told at the end that we were probably going to have a standalone bill. And that was one of the requests that we had if vouchers are truly something that we need for the state of Texas,” he said.
Bailes expressed disappointment that Abbott, whom he supports, did not include public school funding on the call for this third special session.
“It just comes across very disingenuous,” he said. “If we truly cared about what’s best for the state of Texas, we would have put that on the original call and we would allow vouchers to stand alone rather than using those to hold captive that which is actually important, and that is better funding.”
Pressure on holdout Republicans to vote yes
The governor spent a significant amount of political capital throughout the year campaigning for school choice and has shown no signs of stopping, despite the resistance from his fellow Republicans.
Amid sizable House opposition to his key priority, Abbott has threatened to back primary challengers to House Republicans who do not approve a version of an education savings account program.
“We will have everything teed up in a way where we will be giving voters in the primary a choice,” the governor said last month during a tele-town hall.
Bailes said he could take the heat.
“I do the job I’m elected to do. And that’s represent the people in my district,” he said. “Whether I have the governor’s support or not, I plan to still run a very effective race…however, he is still our governor, and he still has my full support.”