RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas (ValleyCentral) — The third special session in Austin is scheduled to end Tuesday, and one of Governor Greg Abbott’s top priorities, school choice, has not passed yet.
Senate Bill One passed in the Senate, but it faces opposition in the House.
Government officials said SB 1 would take $500 million in general revenue and create more than 60,000 education savings accounts worth $8,000 each.
Those funds would be managed by the state Comptroller’s Office. Parents could use these funds to help pay for private school tuition, pay for private tutors, uniforms, transportation, and other approved costs.
Opponents of the program say it redirects money away from public schools. They say there are many other issues facing public schools that need to be addressed.
“Teacher salary, teacher pay, teacher retention all those are huge issues, but the voucher does not address that at all, it’s simply taking money away from an underfunded public school system and giving it to the private sector,” said George McShan, a retired school board member and public educational services consultant.
Parents in favor of the bill said they heard the same argument when public charter schools were first introduced. They said public schools hadn’t suffered since that version of school choice was introduced.
“They’re still open, they’re thriving, they became better, they become more competitive, and that’s the biggest point, parents need to have an option, this will make public schools better in the long run,” said Jose W. Hernandez, whose children attend a private Catholic school in Edinburg.
McShan said school choice already existed in public education.
“You have choice within the districts themselves, you can leave that district and go to another public school if you like, or even a public charter school if you like, so the choice is there, the choice is there for parents it’s there for the public, and we feel that we’re making great strides in making sure that all children are getting a high-quality education,” McShan said.
Father Greg Labus, Pastor at Saint Joseph Catholic Church, along with the Diocese, are supporting ESA’s.
Labus said when factoring in costs like teachers and administrators, schools can become very expensive. He said that, in a way, it wasn’t fair to those who are less financially able to afford Catholic education.
“Increasingly, it’s becoming more and more difficult for parents to afford tuition in a Catholic school, so we are supporting what the Bishops of the state of Texas are promoting, an educational savings account that will allow our poorer families to afford Catholic education,” Labus said.
Opponents like McShan said the proposed bill should be troubling to everyone who wants to follow the constitution and give an adequate education to all children.
He said that’s what the public school system does, but this program does not address the needs of all students.
“We have pockets in which students are challenged. Students with special needs, special education students, we know that’s an issue, children coming from poverty, but by and large, public education for public school children is doing very well,” McShan said.
McShan said the current system of ranking public schools is working well. He said schools received an A through F grade, and if there are serious issues, the Texas Education Agency can intervene. He said the proposed ESA program lacks transparency.
“It allows for a voucher, if you will, for a parent to give to a private school with no financial accountability, no educational accountability and that should be problematic for the public because their taxpayer dollar is not being accounted for,” McShan said.
Hernandez said that, across the valley, private schools didn’t have the resources to handle the same number of students as public schools.
He said the number of students who opted to attend these private schools, should SB1 pass, would be a dent in the total number of children that now attend public or charter schools.
Hernandez said he believed lawmakers from the valley would play an important role in how the vote turned out.
He said that he, along with other parents, has been organizing walks of support for his cause. Groups from Catholic and Christian schools walk from their schools to the offices of local legislators to show they’re in favor of ESA.
“It allows the parents to have the resources to have their children, in one center of the Rio Grande Valley, go to private school, go to Catholic school, go to a Christian school,” Hernandez said. “That’s what the ESA is meant to do.”
Labus said the legislation would not affect taking money away from public schools. He said that public schools have a place in society, but competition is a good thing.
He said the law would make both public and private schools perform better.
“In the early Twentieth Century, monopolies were broken up. So too, I think, this is one way we could say that public education, in some ways, is a monopoly,” Labus said.
McShan said the legislature should work on fully funding public schools instead of allocating that money elsewhere.
“Right now, Texas is ranked like forty-third in the nation in funding its public schools, we have a $30 billion surplus of funds, but we’re not addressing teacher pay,” McShan said. “We’re not addressing teacher retention, we’re not addressing those issues that students suffered from as a result of COVID, that we still have students having mental and emotional health issues that we’re dealing with. And we’re not addressing those issues.”
Hernandez said he came from a family of educators. He said he was worried about all teachers, not just the ones teaching in public schools, and was concerned they weren’t getting the same support from advocates of public education.
Lawmakers are scheduled to meet again to discuss SB1 in Austin on Monday.
If the legislation fails to pass before the special session is scheduled to end on Tuesday, there is a chance Governor Abbott will call for another.