A proposal to use state money to help parents pay for private schools was approved by the Texas Senate on April 6, setting the stage for a contentious debate in the House. Senators also approved a bill that would give public school teachers a one-time bonus.

The Senate was in session for nearly 12 hours and spent over five hours debating the two education bills.

Senate Bill 8, by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would create an education savings account program, commonly known as private school vouchers. Parents who pull their children out of public schools could receive $8,000 per student to help send them to private schools. The money, which would come from taxes paid to the state, could be used to cover private school tuition or other educational expenses, like textbooks or transportation.

To be eligible for the program, students must be currently enrolled in a public school and have attended public school for at least 90% of the current school year. Students enrolling in kindergarten or prekindergarten for the first time could also apply for an ESA.

In an amendment to the bill, Creighton announced that 10% of the program’s funds could be used to provide education savings accounts for low-income students who are already enrolled in private schools. This would be about 62,500 students, Creighton said. Other private school students would not be eligible for the program.

The program would not take money from existing education programs, such as the Foundation School Program or the Permanent School Fund, Creighton said. The Legislative Budget Board reported that the program would cost the state over $531 million through August 2025.

SB 8 is a longtime Republican goal and one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s seven emergency priorities for the current legislative session. In recent months, the governor has traveled across the state to discuss the voucher program, with a focus on rural Texas.

The bill would also allow parents to be more involved in what their children learn about in the classroom. Deemed the “parental bill of rights,” it would let parents request reviews of their student’s curriculum, permit students to transfer between public school districts and more. Schools would also be restricted from teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity for all grade levels.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, proposed an amendment to the bill that would ban Texas lawmakers from applying for or receiving money from the ESA program while they are in office. Senators voted unanimously in favor of the amendment.

“We shouldn’t be allowed to self-deal here, nor should we be accused of self-dealing in any way,” Gutierrez said.

A top concern for opponents of the legislation is that public schools, particularly in rural areas, would lose money if their students leave to attend private schools. In response, Creighton’s bill would give schools with fewer than 20,000 students $10,000 per year for each student that leaves the district through the ESA program. Small schools would receive this additional allotment for five years.

Public education advocates have also raised concerns that private schools are not required to meet state and federal standards for accountability, accessibility and safety.

All public schools in the United States are required to follow the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees that all special education students receive a free education that is tailored to their needs. Private schools are not required to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and do not have to accept all students.

Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said he worried that students with disabilities and “higher needs” would be denied from private schools.

“Is there going to be a policy attached to those [private] schools that’s going to prevent them from discriminating against disciplinary records, a child’s disability, a child’s race or even a parent’s inability to pay?” Miles asked.

Creighton said there would not be new anti-discrimination policies for private schools to follow, but that private schools across Texas currently offer scholarships to help families pay for tuition, fees and more. According to the Education Data Initiative, a research group, K-12 private school tuition in Texas costs over $10,000 per year on average.

During the debate on the Senate floor, Miles proposed an amendment to require private schools that receive money from the ESA program to meet the same accountability standards as Texas public schools.

The Texas Education Agency gives every public school and district an annual grade on an A-F scale. Grades are based on standardized test scores from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, academic improvement, high school graduation rates and more. Districts that receive low grades multiple years in a row are typically subject to state intervention, like the TEA’s planned takeover of Houston ISD.

Miles said the amendment would “ensure that all schools are accountable for the use of our state funds.”

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, filed an amendment to require private schools to meet the same safety training standards as public schools.

“The tragedy of violence strikes all schools, whether they’re public or private, small or large,” Menéndez said, referencing the recent mass shooting at a Nashville private school.

Creighton said he opposed both amendments, because “whether it’s imposing the STAAR test on private schools [or] imposing public school safety standards on private schools, that’s not the intent of our legislation. This legislation and the intent of it is to empower our families, our Texas moms and dads, that make decisions on behalf of their students.”

Both amendments were voted down by the Senate.

The proposal passed out of the Senate with an 18-13 vote. Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, was the only Republican to vote "no" on the bill, while all Democrats voted against it.

“I have always believed in our public school system of over 8,000 campuses,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement following the passage of SB 8. “Many schools are great, most are good, but we also have those that are failing our students. That is why we need school choice for parents who want options other than their failing public school.”

The bill now heads to the House, where it faces heavy opposition. Also on April 6, the House amended the state budget to prohibit the use of public funds for education savings accounts or other voucher-like programs. Representatives from both parties approved the amendment in an 86-52 vote, with 11 members present but not voting. During previous legislative sessions, voucher programs have died in the House without a committee hearing.

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 9, which is aimed at improving teacher retention. Also by Creighton, the bill would give public school teachers in larger urban and suburban districts a one-time bonus of $2,000, while districts with fewer than 20,000 students would get a $6,000 bonus for each teacher.

Creighton fielded many questions about the difference in bonuses, and told his colleagues that he wanted to help bridge the gap in compensation between urban and rural districts. In rural areas, some teachers make as low as $30,000 per year, he explained.

“We are not going to leave certain teachers behind,” Creighton said.

SB 9 would also provide extra funding to support bilingual education teachers, establish a grant program to help districts rehire retired educators and allow teachers to remove “unruly and abusive” students from their classrooms for a certain period of time.

The bill was approved by the Senate with a 22-9 vote. It will now be sent to the House.