Texas

Texas Senate approves bill to create state’s first school voucher-like program

Senate Bill 8, which would give parents state funds to pay for private schools, was approved by Texas Senators on Thursday.

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) debates against SB 8 on the Texas Senate floor Thursday, April 6, 2023.
Screen Shot / The Texas Senate
Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) debates against SB 8 on the Texas Senate floor Thursday, April 6, 2023.

Legislation to create a school voucher-like program has made it out of the Texas Senate.

After three hours of debate on the Senate floor, SB 8 passed in a 18 to 13 vote.

SB 8 is a wide-ranging education proposal described by its authors as a "parental rights bill." In addition to creating a mechanism for parents to use public dollars to pay for private schools, the bill would also ban public schools from offering instruction or guidance on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Texas lawmakers have attempted to create school voucher-like programs in the past, but this session marks the first time private school choice has the full-throttled support of both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Gov. Abbott has been on a tour of "Parent Empowerment Nights" at private Christian schools since January, calling for the creation of an Education Savings Account program in order to avoid the "indoctrination" of private schools.

Education Savings Account programs, or ESAs, put state funding into accounts that parents can use to pay private school tuition.

However, the Texas House demonstrated on Thursday that some lawmakers strongly oppose funding private school choice. The House approved an amendment to their budget proposal that bars the use of state funds for school vouchers or similar programs, including education savings accounts. The amendment passed 86 to 52 with the support of nearly two dozen Republicans.

In order for SB 8 to become law, the Texas Senate will have to reconcile the opposition in the Texas House.

Historically, school voucher and ESA bills have died in the Texas House. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan chose not to include vouchers or ESAs in his list of priority legislation.

SB 8 bill author Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe said he was not fazed by the House vote, calling it all part of the negotiation process.

"They're not going to negotiate against themselves. So of course they're going to be a no until they're a yes," Creighton said. "And I go through my noes to get my yeses."

Gender and sexuality instruction ban

SB 8 also includes language similar to Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" law. It bars "instruction, guidance, activities, or programming regarding sexual orientation or gender identity to students enrolled in prekindergarten through 12th grade."

Bill author Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said during the bill's committee hearing that those topics were "private" and "sensitive" and should be discussed at home.

Callie Butcher of the Dallas LGBT Bar Association was one of several people who waited long hours in March to testify against that provision in the bill. She testified that the provision violates the First Amendment and does not protect children.

"Being denied information or support about these subjects does not make those kids less gay or less trans, but it will make it more difficult for those children to get support," Butcher said. "The truth is, provisions like this one are not about protecting children or matters to be discussed at home. What they’re about are reducing acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and they’re about undercutting the dignity and equality of our community and stigmatizing and silencing LGBTQ teachers, students and families."

The version of SB 8 that made it out of committee specifies that it does not limit the free speech rights of students, but does not otherwise address Butcher's concerns about First Amendment rights.

ESA program details

If passed into law, SB 8 would make up to $8,000 a year available to use for a student’s private school tuition.

The original bill text limited eligibility to students entering their first year of formal education or transferring from a public school, with no limits on income eligibility.

However, that proposal fell short of the universal eligibility preferred by many private school choice supporters who want to include current private school students and home school students.

An amendment passed on the Senate floor reserves 10% of ESAs for lower-income families already enrolled in private school. Eligibility for current private school families will be capped at 200% of the federal poverty level, about $60,000 for a family of four.

The remaining 90% of ESAs would have no income caps, allowing wealthy families with young children or children currently in public school to participate.

In states with similar eligibility requirements,most ESA participants had never attended public school.

According to bill author Brandon Creighton, a half million dollars from the general revenue fund would be appropriated for the launch of SB 8, allowing for around 60,000 participants.

Rural skepticism

Like Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made ESAs one of his top priorities this session.

"I don't care how many special sessions it takes," Patrick said during a Texas Public Policy Foundation event in early March.

The bill also has the support of several prominent members of the Senate Education Committee, including Republican State Senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston. He hopes to create an education system that looks more like a marketplace, with parents acting as consumers.

“They should be able to take their taxpayer money and go to a facility that they think can get the best education for their children," he said shortly before the measure passed the Senate Education Committee.

"That's the real discussion. Not some pejorative, ‘Oh, well, somehow the tax money has gotten into some governmental coffers,’ because we need to get rid of that thinking. That's not what we need to move forward with how to do the best education with stratified marketing and stratified markets throughout Texas,” Bettencourt said.

However, the proposal has long been a wedge issue for the GOP. Republicans from rural areas largely oppose the measure because they fear it will drain funds from small town schools, and some moderates are wary of allowing taxpayer dollars to flow to religious schools.

“It’s horrible for rural Texas. It’s horrible for all Texans,” Panhandle State Representative Ken King said at a Texas Tribune event in November, before the legislative session kicked off. “The only people it’s going to help are the kids who don’t need the help.”

In an effort to win their support, the authors of SB 8 folded in a short-term funding boost for smaller school districts to make up for lost students. The original bill gave those districts $10,000 for two years for every student that leaves the district using an ESA. Senators amended that language during debate Thursday, extending the funding boost to five years.

Sen. José Menendez was one of several Democrats who opposed SB 8. He pointed out that many smaller school districts are in urban areas. For instance, Alamo Heights ISD in San Antonio has less than 5,000 students.

The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martínez Beltrán contributed to this report.

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