A Texas Senate committee advanced Oct. 10 legislation to help families pay for private schools.

Senate Bill 1 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would set aside $500 million during the 2024-25 biennium for education savings accounts, a voucher-like program. Families could apply to receive $8,000 per student to pay for private school tuition, books, tutoring, transportation and other education expenses.

The Senate Education Committee, which Creighton chairs, heard hours of testimony from Texans for and against the bill. The committee then voted to send it to the full Senate with all 10 Republicans in favor of the bill and all three Democrats against.

What you need to know

“The goal of this legislation is to empower our Texas families, our moms and dads across this state, and the nearly 6 million students in Texas schools with education freedom,” Creighton said.

A portion of the program’s funds would be set aside for low-income families and students with disabilities.

“This program will give students who need a fighting chance the opportunities to find an education that they personally need and would succeed with,” Creighton said.

The background

Enacting “school choice” is one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priorities this year, but proposals did not pass during the regular legislative session due to bipartisan pushback from the House.

During the third special legislative session of the year, which began Oct. 9, Abbott directed lawmakers to work on an education savings account program, strengthen security at the border and prohibit COVID-19 vaccine mandates. House and Senate leaders are also prioritizing increasing funding for public schools.

On Oct. 9, the Senate Finance Committee agreed unanimously to send a $5.2 billion school funding bill to the full Senate. SB 2, also by Creighton, would increase per-student funding from the state from $6,160 to $6,235, provide bonuses for teachers and double funding for school safety.

Zooming in

Democrats on the education committee expressed concerns about accountability and transparency under the proposed program.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said the bill should require the Texas comptroller’s office, which would oversee applications and funding, to track the demographics of students who apply for and receive funds.

“One of the things we don’t have is transparency,” West said. “We’re taking tax dollars and putting it into this particular apparatus. ... Why don’t we want to find out who’s taking advantage of this program?”

Opponents of the bill also questioned why private schools would not be subject to the same accountability requirements as public schools.

“We're not doing anything in this legislation to impose [the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness] on private schools,” Creighton said. “We're leaving it up to families to make a decision on what is best for their child.”

Mark Wiggins, a senior lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the $500 million that would be allocated for the program should instead go to public schools.

“That’s a huge chunk of funding that our kids desperately need right now,” Wiggins said. “Because to the extent that our school districts face challenges, most of them stem from, ultimately, a lack of resources. This would further withdraw resources from those underserved schools.”

The program would not take money from existing education funds, such as the Foundation School Program, Creighton said. However, the state would not give districts additional money to fill gaps if students leave their public schools.

Creighton also emphasized Oct. 9 that education savings accounts were not tied to the Senate’s school funding bill and would be considered separately.

“There can be harmony in lifting up our public schools like never before, our public school teachers like never before—and also making sure that moms and dads across this state, if they don’t find what they need and they need other options, that they have a chance to apply to a program that will give them those options,” Creighton said Oct. 10.