The debate over private school tuition subsidies continued Tuesday at the Texas Legislature, with the House Public Education Committee weighing proposed programs that would establish education savings accounts (ESAs).
Republican State Representative James Frank of Wichita Falls spoke in favor of House Bill 4340, which the committee took testimony but did not vote on. The bill would create an ESA program to subsidize tuition and other expenses for private school students.
"You may have the very best public school, but there are still going to be kids that fall through the cracks," Frank argued.
An earlier version excluded current private school students, but Rep. Frank described a substitute version with tiered funding — about $5,150 for students who are already in private school and about $10,300 for students not yet enrolled in private school — with priority for participation given to parents earning lower incomes or who have children in special education. His office did not forward a copy of the substitute to Houston Public Media, and it wasn't posted on the Legislature's website immediately after the committee meeting.
The income-based priority scheme attempts to address concerns that an ESA program would primarily benefit wealthy families who can already afford high-tuition schools. The program would grow over time, with every private school student in Texas becoming potentially eligible to receive the full ESA allotment within a little over a decade.
Committee members asked several witnesses about the lack of safeguards against discrimination by private schools, which aren't subject to federal law protecting students with disabilities. House Public Education Committee Chair Brad Buckley argued those students don't receive adequate services in public schools.
"For some of these kids, it just can't wait," the Central Texas Republican said.
Private schools cannot retain tax-exempt status or receive federal funds if they discriminate on the basis of race. But in a pointed exchange, Democratic State Representative Harold Dutton of Houston asked Laura Colangelo, Executive Director of the Texas Private Schools Association, about the percentage of Black and Hispanic students currently enrolled in Texas private schools.
"I’m guessing it’s probably relatively small," she responded. "I do know that every private school has efforts to increase diversity of all kinds in their school."
The committee also heard testimony but did not vote on a proposed ESA program that would only be open to students with disabilities. Republican State Representative Jacey Jetton of Katy authored House Bill 3781. In addition to creating ESAs for disabled students, the bill aims to bridge an estimated $2 billion shortfall in state funding for special ed in public schools.
HB 3781 also continues a fund-drained program that provided $1,500 grants to public school parents with students in special education in response to pandemic learning losses.
"This bill is a comprehensive update to the way we fund special education services in Texas," Jetton told the committee.
Many of the bill's components come from the Texas Commission on Special Education Funding, formed by the Legislature in 2021. The commission voted unanimously to recommend more funding for special ed in the public special ed system last year, but commission members — including Jetton — split 4-3 in favor of recommending ESAs.
Democratic State Representative Mary González of El Paso was also on the commission. She supported more money for special ed in public schools, but she opposed the ESA component.
“When we think about special education funding, when we start siphoning off the funds that are needed for the entire community and the entire state to do ESAs, we're really putting at risk our most vulnerable population,” she told Houston Public Media. “What I would rather we be doing is really investing in institutionalizing the supports that kids with disabilities need.”
Before testimony on any of the ESA proposals, the committee voted 11-0 to recommend House Bill 100, which would increase per-pupil and special education funding for public schools — without also creating an ESA program. HB 100 was co-authored by Republican State Representative Ken King, who represents the Panhandle and South Plains. Rural opposition poses a threat to school vouchers and similar programs.
Michael Lee, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, called public schools "the lifeblood" of small town communities.
"Our officers and directors do feel that this will be detrimental to our rural schools," he told the committee. "If you lose kids, you lose money. It's pure and simple."
Republican State Representative Matt Shaheen of Plano argued in favor of his school choice route — House Bill 619, which he said would establish a private school scholarship program "without sacrificing public funding." The scholarships would be funded by tax–deductible donations.
Governor Greg Abbott threw his support behind ESAs in January, and the Senate passed a bill that would create an ESA program last week. On the same day, the House signaled its opposition with a budget amendment that prohibits state money from funding vouchers. The Senate is expected to remove that amendment from the budget, but the House vote signals an uphill battle for ESAs in a chamber where rural Republicans act as a key block of opposition.