Se­nate al­ters, OKs school choice bill

Stu­dents with low in­comes, dis­abil­i­ties would get state funds.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Chang jchang@states­

Af­ter last-minute changes to scale back the mea­sure, the Texas Se­nate passed a bill 18-13 on Thurs­day that would redi­rect state money to help low-in­come stu­dents and stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties pay for pri­vate school tuition, among other non-pub­lic school ex­penses.

Se­nate Bill 3, which has emerged as one of the most di­vi­sive ed­u­ca­tion mea­sures this ses­sion, un­der­went ma­jor changes over the last few days as the au­thor of the bill, state Sen. Larry Tay­lor, R-Friendswood, tried to gather suf­fi­cient votes to pass it. More changes were pre­sented to sen­a­tors on Thurs­day, just hours be­fore they con­sid­ered the bill.

State Sens. Robert Ni­chols of Jack­sonville, Kel Seliger of Amar­illo, and Joan Huff­man of Hous­ton were the only Repub­li­cans who voted against the bill while Ed­die Lu­cio Jr. of Brownsville was the only Demo­crat to vote for it.

“There are just some stu­dents, for what­ever rea­son, they’re not get­ting what they need and their

par­ents rec­og­nize it,” Tay­lor said dur­ing the de­bate on Thurs­day. “This is ac­tu­ally em­pow­er­ing them.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick, who has made ex­pand­ing school choice a pri­or­ity this ses­sion, said that the bill would pro­vide re­lief for stu­dents stuck in fail­ing pub­lic schools.

“Mak­ing sure that ev­ery child has the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend the school their par­ents be­lieve is best for them is some­thing the peo­ple of Texas elected us to do,” Pa­trick said in a state­ment.

Other law­mak­ers grilled Tay­lor on the lack of ac­count­abil­ity un­der the bill. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dal­las, said that pri­vate school stu­dents aren’t re­quired to take the same type of state stan­dard­ized tests as those in pub­lic schools; un­der SB 3, the pub­lic won’t know whether their tax dol­lars are re­sult­ing in bet­ter stu­dent per­for­mance, he said.

“If the pub­lic doesn’t ex­actly know how those stu­dents are per­form­ing ... how can we know whether or not this ex­per­i­ment ... is ac­tu­ally work­ing?” he said.

Seliger also said that he feared that state money could go to sup­port pri­vate schools that taught anti-Amer­i­can prin­ci­ples.

Tay­lor re­sponded that the bill would re­quire pri­vate schools to un­dergo a rig­or­ous ac­cred­i­ta­tion process that should weed out such types of in­struc­tion.

The lat­est changes to SB 3 would limit the eli­gi­bil­ity re­quire­ments of stu­dents and ap­pear to ad­dress con­cerns of law­mak­ers from ru­ral ar­eas where few pri­vate schools ex­ist.

Stu­dents who live in coun­ties with fewer than 285,000 peo­ple would no longer be el­i­gi­ble for state money through so-called sav­ings ac­counts or tax credit schol­ar­ships un­less res­i­dents vote in an elec­tion to ap­prove eli­gi­bil­ity. Ed­u­ca­tion sav­ings ac­counts would also no longer cover home school­ing ex­penses; this comes as some home-school­ing par­ents have op­posed SB 3 be­cause they feared fall­ing un­der state reg­u­la­tions. Other changes in­clude:

Lim­it­ing eli­gi­bil­ity for sav­ings ac­counts to low-in­come stu­dents.

Re­duc­ing the an­nual cap for the tax credit schol­ar­ship from $100 mil­lion to $25 mil­lion.

Lim­it­ing eli­gi­bil­ity to stu­dents who at­tended a Texas pub­lic school for one year prior.

For a fam­ily of four mak­ing less than $78,000 per year, a stu­dent could re­ceive $6,800 per year. The bill would still al­low stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties re­gard­less of in­come to re­ceive about $8,200 per year.

Tay­lor choked up while he dis­cussed the spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­vi­sion Thurs­day. “These spe­cial needs kids have a pur­pose,” he said.

He said by nar­row­ing the eli­gi­bil­ity, the bill’s cost would be far less than the $330 mil­lion price tag of the orig­i­nal bill.

But ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis from the lib­eral think tank Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties, pub­lic schools statewide would lose $173 mil­lion if 1 per­cent of stu­dents leave to ac­cept a sav­ings ac­count or schol­ar­ship.

“In­stead of shift­ing our tax dol­lars to pri­vate school tuition, the Leg­is­la­ture should re­model our out­dated school fi­nance sys­tem,” said the cen­ter’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, Ann Bee­son.

The bill will now be con­sid­ered by the House, where lead­ers haven’t made school choice a pri­or­ity.

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