AUSTIN (AP) — The Texas Senate voted early Monday to attach a modest voucher plan to a sweeping, bipartisan school finance bill that already cleared the House — potentially dooming an effort to pump an extra $1.6 billion into classrooms and begin overhauling the troubled way the state pays for public education.
Republicans control both chambers of the Texas Legislature but the Senate has for years advanced voucher plans offering public money to students attending private and religious schools, only to have such proposals repeatedly and resoundingly defeated in the House.
Another such showdown is likely looming, and the end result could be Texas getting neither vouchers nor a fix of Texas’ “Robin Hood” system, under which school districts in wealthy areas share local property tax revenue they collect with those in poorer parts of the state.
The original House plan sought to increase annual, per-student funding about $210 to $5,350, while raising funding for school district transportation and educating dyslexic students — increasing totally spending by $1.6 billion.
The version the Senate approved after midnight increases classroom funding by only about $500 million, scraps the $210 per-student increase and adds a plan offering taxpayer funds that would go into education savings accounts that some special education students could use to attend private schools.
“This is only for those situations where parents really are unhappy with what’s going on with their special-needs child,” said its sponsor, Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican.
Taylor said only about 6,000 students maximum would likely qualify to start. But critics note that voucher plans that begin modestly in other states often grew at break-neck speed.
“This is like the camel with its nose under the tent,” said Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West, who called the education savings account plan “the voucher, that’s what it’s commonly referred to.”
“Call it what you will” Taylor replied.
The House is expected to reject Senate changes. That would send the bill to conference committee, where differences will have to be reconciled before the legislative session ends May 29.
House education leaders have indicated that vouchers in any form are non-starters — but the stakes are rising since the Senate’s changes may now mean fully sacrificing a major school finance bill.
Texas educates around 5.3 million public school students, more than any state except California, but has endured decades of legal battles, with the Legislature frequently cutting classroom budgets so deeply that school districts sue. No school finance changes are legally required this session because Texas’ Supreme Court ruled last summer that the system was flawed but minimally constitutional.
Still, supporters of the House plan had optimistically called it an important first step toward a fuller school finance overhaul that will take many years. The Senate proposal preserves much of that work, but, as Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez of San Antonio noted of vouchers: “This one particular topic might tank the whole thing.”
Even Taylor conceded that many in Texas think “the whole world is coming to an end over that little bitty thing.”
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