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.

Senate Bill 8, filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would create an education savings account program, also known as private school vouchers. Parents who pull their children out of public schools could receive $7,500 per student for private school tuition and other education-related expenses.

SB 8 is one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s seven emergency priorities for 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.

The Legislative Budget Board reported the 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—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 in the basic allotment would be needed just to keep up with inflation. The Texas House was considering a $140 increase over the next two years as of press time.

In 2019, House Bill 3 included a $1,020 increase in the basic allotment for an estimated $4.5 billion.

“We are begging for any morsel of additional funding for public schools, and ... [vouchers] do the opposite,” said Laura Yeager, director of Just Fund It TX, at an April 4 news conference.

School districts across the state, including Katy ISD, saw budget deficits in fiscal year 2022-23 due to COVID’s impact on attendance. Katy ISD’s 2023 budget included an $18 million deficit with state funding making up 52.8% of revenue and local property taxes making up 47.2%, according to budget documents.

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

A closer look at Senate Bill 8

If this bill becomes law, students enrolled in public schools and students enrolling in kindergarten or pre-K for the first time could apply for an education savings account. As many as 62,500 low-income students already enrolled in private schools may also be eligible, Creighton said.

Amendments proposed to require private schools receiving voucher funds to meet the same accountability or safety training standards as Texas public schools were voted down by the Senate. Ultimately, the bill passed out of the Senate with an 18-13 vote April 6—one Republican and all Democrats voted against it.

The bill was then referred to the House, where it was expected to face heavy opposition. The same day SB 8 passed in the Senate, the House amended the state budget to prohibit the use of public funds for education savings accounts in an 86-52 vote.

A similar amendment garnered 115 votes in the previous 2021 legislative session. During previous legislative sessions, voucher programs have died in the House without a committee hearing.

The Texas House Public Education Committee made revisions to SB 8 on May 10, the latest update to the bill as of press time.

Annual stipends in the revised bill were changed from $8,000 to $7,500 for average students. Additionally, after the revision parents would receive $9,000 for private school tuition if their child is educationally disadvantaged and $10,500 a year for private school tuition if their child is educationally disadvantaged and has a disability.

The revised bill eliminates a provision that districts with fewer than 20,000 students would receive $10,000 for each student that leaves the district for a private school. Finally, the revision eliminates restrictions to classroom lessons.

Michael Barba, K-12 education policy director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, said he believes SB 8 would make “great progress” toward giving parents alternatives if they have concerns about the quality of their children’s education.

Data provided by the TPPF shows about 1.6 million students across the state, or 55.3%, are below grade level in English and reading classes, and about 1.5 million are below grade level in math, or 62.5%.

“The reason [parents] are voicing their concerns now is because they see that the education that was provided throughout the time of COVID either isn’t up to the level of quality that they expect for their child, or it’s not aligned with their family values,” Barba said.

Although public schools are required to teach to standards established by the State Board of Education, private schools do not have the same restrictions regarding what they can teach students.

Demographics firm Population and Survey Analysts reports about 2.8% of students living within Katy ISD boundaries attended private schools as of 2021-22.

Public school impacts

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.

Since then, there have been a few attempts to bring education savings accounts to Texas, but Popinski said he believes the concept is getting more momentum this session because this has become a growing national trend since the pandemic.

Popinski said there are no benefits to public schools under such programs.

“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.

Public schools are held accountable through many avenues that private schools are not, Popinski said. These include being governed by locally elected school boards and following publicly reported, state-mandated measures such as standardized testing like the STAAR test, the A-F accountability rating system, a financial integrity rating system and certification provisions.

This program would also negatively affect public schools financially, as the state funding they receive is based on students’ average daily attendance, Popinkski said. If five or six students opt to take the voucher and leave their public school, that funding lost equates to a teacher’s salary, he said.

Barba 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, which would amount to about 60,000 students transferring in Texas.

“So the idea that there’s an exodus is a myth,” Barba said.

Barba said 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 vouchers in Texas would ultimately cost about $1 billion a year, and he would rather see that used to increase the basic allotment.

“Instead of spending dollars on a new voucher 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.

Cassandra Jenkins contributed to this report.