For the first time this year, legislation aimed at helping families pay for private schools is on its way to the Texas House floor.

A House education committee approved House Bill 1 on Nov. 10. The $7.6 billion proposal would create an education savings account program, increase funding for public schools and give teachers a one-time bonus.

Hundreds of Texans, including many school leaders, testified before the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment for over 12 hours Nov. 9. The committee then voted to send the bill to the full House, with all 10 Republicans in favor of advancing the bill and all 4 Democrats against it.

What you need to know

The proposal by House Public Education Chair Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, would give families taxpayer money each year to send their children to private schools. Parents could apply to receive around $10,500 per student to pay for private school tuition, transportation, books and more.

The controversial plan, known as education savings accounts or private school vouchers, is a top priority of Gov. Greg Abbott. State lawmakers have spent the majority of 2023 in Austin and are currently in their fourth special legislative session after they refused to come to an agreement on vouchers.

The House has repeatedly killed voucher proposals, with Democrats and rural Republicans united against them. If House lawmakers reject the bill again or remove the voucher provision, Abbott vowed to call them back to the capitol.

“We would start all over again,” Abbott told reporters at a Nov. 10 news conference. “We’d be spending December here, maybe January here, maybe February here. And I know one thing about both the House and Senate—they want to get out of here.”

Lawmakers have said they hope to wrap up negotiations on education and border security, the other topic of the fourth legislative overtime, before Thanksgiving. The current special session began Nov. 7 and can last up to 30 days.

“We will absolutely stay until the job gets done,” Texas Senate Education Chair Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “These kids are worth it.”

Breaking down the bill

In addition to the education savings account program, Buckley’s 177-page proposal would increase per-student funding for public schools, provide bonuses for teachers, invest $750 million in special education programs and rework public school accountability.

HB 1 would raise the basic allotment, or the base amount of funding schools receive per student, from $6,160 to $6,700. The allotment would also be adjusted for inflation once every two years.

Public school teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses would receive a $4,000 bonus this school year, while part-time employees would get $2,000. Schools would be expected to use a portion of the $540 basic allotment increase to maintain the raises, lawmakers said.

Schools would also receive funding for teacher residency programs, which place prospective teachers in classrooms with mentors for one year. Schools typically hire residents as full-time teachers the following year.

The current public school accountability system would end in 2026 if HB 1 becomes law. The bill would create a commission to recommend improvements to the state’s assessment and accountability framework.

Additionally, the Texas Education Agency would not be allowed to issue its annual A-F accountability ratings for the 2022-23 school year. A Travis County district judge temporarily blocked the agency from issuing school and district ratings in October due to widespread pushback from school leaders, who told Community Impact their schools would receive lower ratings despite improving student performance.

The education savings account program would be open to all Texas students, although low-income families and students with disabilities would have priority access to the $10,500-per-student allotment. Homeschooled students could receive $1,000 per year to cover their learning materials and other expenses.

For accountability purposes, students in the program would have to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or a similar exam. Children who fail the test two years in a row would be kicked out of the program.

What they’re saying

During the committee hearing, Buckley told lawmakers the education debate had been framed as “an either-or matter—either you support public education or you support parental choice.”

“I reject that premise,” Buckley said.

Public school leaders and special education advocates argued a voucher program would divert money away from “already underfunded” public schools.

“There is no dollar amount for us that would justify the long-term damage we think would come from having an [education savings account] or voucher system,” said Andrea Chevalier, the director of governmental relations for the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education.

Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas, said students with disabilities “lose legal rights when they leave a public school.”

“It is not possible to fully protect the legal rights of a student with a disability in a private school,” Aleman said. “Discrimination does happen. Exclusion does happen.”

Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, said there was “no chance in hell” vouchers would benefit students in his community and other rural areas, where private schools are less common.

“​​I will never ever consider a voucher program and leave public schools without fully funding them,” King said.

King asked the leaders of the Texas School Alliance, the Texas Association of Midsize Schools and the Texas Association of Rural Schools if they were “ready to tell the governor ‘you can’t buy us off, we’re against vouchers forever, no matter how much money you give us to make it look better?’”

All three witnesses responded with “yes.”

“The funding that our schools need [is] held hostage,” TSA Executive Director HD Chambers said. “This is a political discussion.”

The other side

“Just because this program isn't going to serve every student and we don't have a slot for every student, it doesn't mean we should reject the full program,” said Jennifer Allmon, the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. “It’s really important to support those with the greatest need.”

Allmon said the cost to attend Catholic private schools varies across the state, but the average tuition for kindergarten to eighth grade is $6,800, while grades 9-12 cost $10,500 per year on average. Catholic schools also offer over $100 million annually in scholarships, she said.

Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said education savings accounts would expand options for children who are struggling in public schools but cannot afford to attend private schools.

“Right now, options only exist if you have money,” Frank said.

Texas’ median private school tuition for the 2022-23 school year was $9,831, Community Impact previously reported. That is just under the proposed $10,500 that students would receive for private school tuition, transportation and more under HB 1.

Stay tuned

The full House could consider HB 1 as early as next week. House lawmakers are also poised to consider a $205 million school safety proposal, which would propose a new fund that Texas voters could approve.

The Texas Senate swiftly approved its own voucher and school funding plans Nov. 9 after last-minute committee meetings. The bills, both filed by Creighton, were nearly identical to proposals passed by the Senate earlier this year.