Editor's note: This story has been updated from a version originally published online with more timely information.

A pair of bills authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and supported by Gov. Greg Abbott seek to widen school choice and raise teachers’ salaries, but Conroe ISD officials say both proposals would put the district at a disadvantage.

Senate Bill 8 would create an education savings account program, also known as private school vouchers. The Legislative Budget Board reported it would cost the state $531 million through 2025 from general state revenue. If the bill is signed into law, parents who pull their children out of public schools could receive $8,000 per student for private school tuition and other education-related expenses.

Meanwhile, SB 9 would give all teachers in the state of Texas a $2,000 raise. However, districts with 20,000 students or less would receive $6,000 while schools with more than 20,000 students would receive the minimum $2,000.

Creighton said together the bills are designed to empower parents' rights while simultaneously supporting the public education system.

“I think parents more than ever are asking for education options,” he said. “On top of that, we are lifting up our public schools and public school teachers. The narrative that we can’t do both is disingenuous. We can do both and we will.”

However, Conroe ISD Superintendent Curtis Null said providing funding to a “parallel education system” will hurt public educators and districts.

“It has zero accountability to the taxpayers,” Superintendent Curtis Null said. “That feels fundamentally unfair to me to do that.”

Senate Bills 8 and 9 passed in the Texas Senate on April 6. As of press time May 12, SB 8 was scheduled for a public hearing in the House’s Public Education Committee on May 15 after several changes were made to the bill. SB 9 was left pending in committee after a public hearing May 9. The regular legislative session ends May 29.

School choice

SB 8 passed the Senate on April 6. The vote was split 18-13 along party lines with one Republican and all Democrats voting against it. However, the vote came the same day the House approved a budget amendment to prohibit the use of public funds for education savings accounts in an 86-52 vote.

While SB 8 would not use funds allocated for public schools, opponents of the legislation, such as Conroe ISD, have expressed concerns that more funding is needed in public schools, which are funded on student enrollment and daily attendance. Darrin Rice, the district’s chief financial officer, said CISD has seen lower attendance rates since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

CISD’s attendance numbers dropped from an average 94.3% pre-pandemic to 92.5% in the 2022-23 school year. Due to the lower attendance rate, Null said CISD does not receive the full $6,160 basic per-student allotment from the state. Null said the district’s per student allotment is actually $5,790. Rice said the district spends an average of $8,546 per student.

On the other hand, SB 8 would give parents $8,000 per student to enroll in private school. Null said he believes the discrepancy is unfair.

“Why should they receive more funding than we do?” he said. “The state should fully fund us on enrollment or give us $8,000 per child instead of the private schools.”

However, citing the district's rapid growth, Null said he doesn’t anticipate enrollment numbers will decrease significantly with the potential passage of the bill. As of a November 2022 Population Survey and Analysts report, 4.8% of students residing in CISD in 2022-23 attended private schools. PASA projected in November 2022 CISD could grow from about 70,000 to 120,000 students by 2032.

“People want to be in this school district,” Null said. “We will remain an attractive option for families.”

Paying teachers

Null said SB 9 is also a concern for the district, because it would cause CISD—the county’s largest district—to have the second lowest starting teacher salaries. As the only school district in Montgomery County with more than 20,000 students, CISD teachers would receive $4,000 less than surrounding districts.

For the 2022-23 school year, teacher salaries at CISD started at $60,000—the highest in the county. If SB 9 is passed, the starting salary would increase to $62,000 while Splendora and New Caney school districts would reach $65,000. Magnolia ISD and Montgomery ISD will trail behind New Caney at $62,500 and $62,200, according to Community Impact’s coverage of school budgets last year. Willis ISD will be the lowest in the county at $61,000.

“It creates an unfair situation,” Null said. “Our teachers in Conroe ISD work so hard, and they do an amazing job every day—as well as all teachers throughout the state. I’m not advocating for our neighboring districts to only make $2,000. I’m advocating for every teacher in the state to receive $6,000.”

Greg Smith, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition, a business league that advocates for the investment in the state’s fastest growing school districts, said he believes legislators are headed in the right direction but need to make some changes to SB 9.

“The big schools often have more resources,” Smith said. “If [the state] infused more dollars into the basic formula funding then districts like Conroe ISD could give their teachers a better lift.”

Creighton said SB 9 is meant to lift up teachers that have been historically underpaid, which he said leaves out CISD.

“Conroe [ISD] is going to be fine,” he said. “It's the districts surrounding them that have struggled for years to keep up. This parity provision is for all the other smaller districts that have not been able to keep up.”

Path forward

According to Texas.gov, May 23 is the last day for the House to consider Senate bills on second reading. Both SB 8 and 9 were read the first time in the House as of press time May 12.

Creighton said he is optimistic the two bills will pass in the House despite contention.

“If you are really talking about what’s best for parents and what’s best for specific education needs of our Texas students, I don’t see any negatives,” he said.

Meanwhile, despite stating in an April 4 budget workshop that the district could not provide a salary increase without a budget deficit if SB 9 passes, Null said April 26 the district anticipates being able to provide a raise and have a balanced budget at the end of the legislative session.

The district’s discussed a $671.65 million preliminary 2023-24 budget April 4.

“At this point, we’ve created our preliminary budget,” Null said. “We’ve reported that to the board. Now we are in a holding pattern until all the budgetary items from the legislature get passed.”