A proposal to use state money to help parents pay for private schools is pending, setting off a debate about how public schools are funded across the state.

Senate Bill 8, filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would create an education savings account program, also known as private school vouchers. As of mid-May, the bill was left pending in committee, shifting the conversation to House Bill 100, which has House approval and is going through the Senate as of press time.

Under HB 100, parents who pull their children out of public schools could receive $8,000 per student for private school tuition. The money would come from education savings accounts, similar to the voucher program.

The effort is one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s seven emergency priorities for the 88th legislative session.

“My job is to make sure we get across the finish line a piece of legislation that will return mom and dad to being in charge of their child’s education,” he said during a visit to Cypress Christian School on March 21.

State spending

The Legislative Budget Board reported the voucher program, which would have offered residents the same amount as education savings account program, would cost the state over $531 million through August 2025. While the program would not use funds allocated for public schools, opponents of the legislation have expressed concerns that more funding is needed in public schools, which could lose more money if their students leave to attend private schools.

The basic allotment—the amount school districts receive from the state per student to provide a basic level of education—has been set at $6,160 per student since 2019-20. Texas ranks No. 42 nationally in per-student spending, according to Education Week’s 2021 School Finance Rankings.

The Texas comptroller of public accounts reported a $900 increase would be needed just to keep up with inflation; however, based on the legislation moving through the Texas House as of press time, legislators were looking at a $140 increase. In 2019, House Bill 3 included a $1,020 increase in the basic allotment.

“We are begging for any morsel of additional funding for public schools, and where vouchers come in is they do the opposite,” said Laura Yeager, director of Just Fund It TX, a nonpartisan organization for public school funding.

Last year, Clear Creek ISD eliminated 76 teaching positions and transferred money from its contingency fund to pass a balanced fiscal year 2022-23 budget. The district is facing an $18 million deficit for the FY 2023-24 budget and over $28 million for FY 2024-25.

“We are taking proactive measures to mitigate this challenge through our newly formed Budget Sprint Team,” Superintendent Karen Engle said in an email to Community Impact. “A team of staff, school board members, parents and business leaders met over the course of two days [the week of May 1]. This group’s work continues, and I anticipate a report with considerations the district can take to increase revenue and reduce expenditure.”

Engle said district officials want any funding increases to go toward the basic allotment.

“The cost of operating a school district has increased significantly; however, the per-student allotment has not since 2019,” she said.

Engle did not comment specifically on SB 8 or HB 100 as the district’s policy is to “generally remain neutral on pending legislation.”

Debating the bill

Statewide public education advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas was founded 17 years ago primarily to push back against the voucher movement happening in the Texas Legislature at the time, Senior Director of Policy Bob Popinski said.

“You are taking money and diverting it from public schools to a private school or vendor that does not have to offer the same accountability as a public school,” he said.

Popinski said the program would also negatively affect public schools financially, as the state funding they receive is based on students’ average daily attendance.

Michael Barba, K-12 education policy director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, argues that data from comparable programs across the country shows a minimal impact on public school attendance. He said similar programs nationally show less than 3% of eligible students use the program in the first five years after its inception, which would amount to about 60,000 students transferring in Texas.

Barba said he believes school choice programs can lead to improved public school systems, and families choosing alternative options acts as a signal to districts to design their programs to better suit families’ needs.

“When you give families choices, the school districts also improve, and that improves education for every child in the community,” he said.

Popinski said the money would be better spent increasing the basic allotment.

“Instead of spending dollars on a new ... program for private schools and vendors, ... why not use that general revenue to actually bolster public education and get them more resources for teacher pay raises, for new programs, for expanding the things that work?” he said.