AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas House on Thursday filed its plan for increasing public school funding and establishing a program for subsidizing private education expenses, proposing a modest boost to baseline public school funding and money to help 25,000 students move out of the public school system.
House Bill 1 by Killeen Republican Brad Buckley, the House Public Education Committee chair, would give teachers a one-time stipend of $4,000 and increase the base per-student funding by $30, from $6,160 to $6,190.
Lawmakers kicked off the third special session with little progress negotiating on one of Governor Greg Abbott’s 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 has been a goal for certain conservatives who gained traction after the COVID-19 pandemic, saying voucher-like programs will give parents more options if they are dissatisfied with 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.
Matt Smith, superintendent of Belton ISD, in Chairman Buckley’s district just outside of Temple, said he hopes the state will provide more funding for public schools.
“Chairman Buckley is a good man and I know he’s trying to advocate for some of the priorities that we have in Belton ISD,” Smith said. “We were very clear about asking for a basic allotment increase. Obviously, we would like to see it be more than that. We believe that we do need more than that based on inflation that we’ve seen over the past couple of years. And we hope to see more than that.”
The bill also establishes an ESA program to subsidize private education expenses for families looking to move their children out of public school.
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.
The House version dedicates significantly less money to education savings accounts than the Senate’s plan. It offers families 75% of the average per-student funding for public schools, or about $4,600. The Senate’s voucher plan would offer families $8,000 per eligible child.
Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, is a 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.”
By combining school funding with education savings accounts, House Bill 1 sets up the lower chamber for an intense political fight fueled by Democrats and some rural Republicans who have said they will not support a compromise package.
In the regular legislative session, teacher pay raises and increased school funding fell victim to disagreements over education savings accounts when the Senate combined them into one bill. It is unclear whether enough Republicans will support the latest proposal in the House.
State Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd, has long been an opponent of any education savings account proposals. He told Nexstar he hopes the House votes on an ESA plan independently, without tying them to teacher pay and public school funding.
“If vouchers are truly something that we need for the state of Texas, they can stand on their own, and they should have their own vote,” Bailes said. “Personally, I don’t see the appetite in House District 18 and rural Texas for a voucher.”
Comptroller: Texas has more funds available than expected
The Texas economy is outperforming expectations. Earlier this month, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that the state will have more than $18 billion in unspent money at the end of this budget cycle.
The announcement came just days before the start of the third special session. It signals that lawmakers have more funds available as they work to pass priority legislation.
“Texas is the eighth largest economy in the world, very tied to the global economy, what happens in other parts of the nation in the world impact our economy, and we have outperformed this year higher than our expectations,” Hegar said.
Hegar said it’s important for lawmakers to focus on education needs as they weigh how to use the surplus.
“The fact is trying to make sure that you put money into the pocketbooks of those people who are educating our children, and those people who are driving the buses, the cafeteria workers, all of these people are extremely important to make sure that we have a qualified workforce into the future,” Hegar said.
There is a big divide over Abbott’s push to allow parents to use public funds for private schools through education savings accounts. Hegar said he supports the governor’s goal, noting that he voted for education savings accounts when he served in the legislature. But he also emphasized the importance of putting more resources into public education.
“We have 6 million children that are 18 years and younger in the education system, whether that’s in our public schools, private schools, charter schools, home school, 5.4 million of those are in the public education system,” Hegar explained.
“So regardless of what passes on education savings accounts, guess where the bulk of the kids are going to be educated? In the public education system,” Hegar added. “You actually can coexist the support of both of those.”
Investment from Texas aims to help Israel’s war effort
Texas state leaders have changed policy, invested state money, and signaled unwavering support for Israel as that country continues its war with Hamas.
Hegar announced last week that the state will purchase $20 million in Israeli bonds, allowing Israel to free up cash to support the war effort.
“Texas has long had a deep spiritual, political and economic connection to Israel and the Israeli people,” Hegar said in a statement. “They are our friend and ally, and Texas supports their right to defend their people against these cowardly terrorists. We will stand with them, and we will provide them with the financial liquidity needed to respond to the atrocities we’ve all witnessed.”
According to the Texas Comptroller’s Office, Texas has invested in Israeli bonds since 1994 and will now hold almost $100 million worth. Hegar called the move a “prudent financial decision” that will provide “a reliable return for the people of Texas.”
Abbott announced last week he is prohibiting state agencies from purchasing goods “produced in or exported from the Gaza Strip, and from any organization or state actor with ties to Hamas.”
The Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas, an Islamic terrorist organization that has killed more than 1,000 people in Israel since the Oct. 7 attack. The area is also home to more than two million civilians, most of whom live in poverty due to strict economic sanctions from Israel, which claims that the sanctions are meant to block resources from Hamas.
“The governor is just restating our commitment to the government of Israel, to the people of Israel, but also reminding entities that we’re going to be on extra cautious watch to make sure that we don’t do business with anybody that we shouldn’t be doing already,” Hegar told Nexstar.
It’s not yet clear whether Texas agencies imported products from Gaza. However, the latter half of Abbott’s executive order limiting imports from “any organization or state actor with ties to Hamas” could have wider-reaching implications. Iran, for example, is a financial supporter of Hamas. Some U.S. leaders believe they helped orchestrate this month’s attacks against Israel. Qatar, as well, has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the Gaza Strip for humanitarian aid.
Rep. McCaul: ‘We have to prepare for’ U.S. troops on ground in Middle East
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul told Nexstar on Wednesday his committee has been asked to consider an “Authorization for Use of Military Force” resolution relating to the Israel-Hamas war, opening the possibility that American troops may again fight in the Middle East if the war escalates.
“I would not want to see that at all,” McCaul said. “I prefer not to see any of our troops on the ground. However, if it escalates to out of control, that’s always a contingency that we have to prepare for.”
McCaul stressed the urgent need he sees for more U.S. aid for allies facing war and threats overseas, including Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, as well as border security legislation to address threats on the southern border.
He urged the House of Representatives to unite behind a leader, as any pending aid requests remain paralyzed while House Republicans struggle to elect a Speaker.
“It’s a very dangerous game to play politically. We need a speaker in the chair as soon as possible,” he said. “You have two, potentially three, conflicts that could be taking place. We haven’t really seen anything like this, I don’t think, since my dad’s War — World War Two. The largest invasion in Europe since World War Two, the biggest threats to the Pacific, and now an all-out war in the Middle East. So, this is not a time to be vacating the Speaker’s chair. It’s a time for governing.”
McCaul said he has been consulting with the White House’s National Security Council on securing reinforcement for Israel’s Iron Dome in preparation for a “nightmare scenario” in which Hezbollah mounts a more sophisticated air assault that could “overload” Israel’s defense systems.
In the Indo-Pacific, McCaul has given initial approval to new weapons systems, sea mines and submarines to ward off a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
“Chairman Xi has great ambitions. What I worry about is he’s going to think we’re taking our eye off the ball with what’s happening in the Middle East and may think this may be the time for him to strike,” McCaul said. “We need to send a message of deterrence, that that would be a grave mistake, and that we are paying attention.”
As soon as this week, The White House is expected to ask Congress for $100 billion of aid for Israel and Ukraine. There is support in both chambers for additional aid for both countries, but legislation cannot move through the House without a speaker.
“We got a lot of hotspots,” McCaul said. “And deterrence is always the key. Projecting power, and not projecting weaknesses, always, in my judgment, is the best foreign policy to stop aggression and stop wars from happening.”
Proposition to develop, maintain state parks on November ballot
Texans will soon vote on a proposition to revamp state parks.
Texas Proposition 14, originating from S.J.R 74, would establish the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to help the acquisition, development, and maintenance of state parks. The fund would be administered by the Parks and Wildlife Department.
Luke Metzger, executive director for environmental advocacy group Environment Texas, emphasized how state parks are “bursting at the seams” currently.
“Too many people have the experience in Texas where you have to plan many months ahead of time to book a campsite,” Metzker said. “We need to make it as easy as possible for people to get outside and experience the great outdoors.”
Lawmakers passed the proposal with overwhelming support. State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D- Austin) emphasized how this proposition would benefit taxpayers.
“It does not raise your taxes,” Eckhardt said. “It may even save you tax dollars in the long run.”
Support for the proposition not only came from lawmakers and environmental groups but also from Grammy-winning country artist Kacey Musgraves.
“Conserving the wildlife and wild places that make Texas so special is something that unites us,” Musgraves said in a promotional video with Environmental Texas. “This is our chance for a new golden era for state park creation.”
Texans will be able to vote on various constitutional amendments, such as Proposition 14, in the Nov. 7 constitutional amendment election. Early voting in that election starts on Monday, Oct. 23.