The Texas House’s new priority education bill offers concessions to sway voucher skeptics

State Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, on the House floor on May 7, 2019.
State Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, released a revised version of his priority education bill Friday. The bill calls for more funding for public schools and would create a school voucher program. Credit: Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune
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​​A revised education bill hoping to introduce school vouchers in Texas would offer more money to schools and create academic accountability measures for students in the program, representing voucher supporters' latest attempt to offer concessions to sway skeptics.

Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, released Friday the reworked House Bill 1, which includes a plethora of increases to public school funding. Most notably, the basic allotment, which is the base amount of money the state gives a district for each student it’s educating, will increase from $6,160 to $6,700 and would be adjusted for inflation starting in 2026-2027.

However, the bill doesn't raise the portion of the basic allotment that has to be devoted to teacher pay, like its previous version did. It also doesn't include additional funds for school safety like a standalone public education funding bill proposed by the Texas Senate last month. School officials have said funds the Texas Legislature allocated during the regular lawmaking session for school safety upgrades aren't enough to pay for the new requirements.

With lawmakers unlikely to pass a voucher program before the end of the ongoing special legislative session, Buckley said he would file his new bill in an upcoming special session, which Gov. Greg Abbott is widely expected to announce soon.

The Texas House and Abbott have been at odds over what sort of public school finance and vouchers bill to present. Buckley’s earlier version of HB 1 proposed modest increases to the basic allotment and a school voucher program that would’ve been open to only certain groups of students. Abbott has been adamant he wants a program that would be open to all students with no enrollment caps.

Meanwhile, the Senate promptly passed its own school voucher proposal in early October. The program described in Senate Bill 1 would be open to all Texas students but give priority access to low-income students and students with disabilities if there were more applications than funds available. The House has not moved on that bill and it has been stuck without a House committee hearing.

Buckley said his new legislation was crafted after receiving input from House colleagues, the governor’s office and education stakeholders. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comments on the new bill.

The new version of HB 1 also revolves around education savings accounts, a voucher-like instrument in the form of state-controlled accounts that would give parents access to taxpayer money to pay for private school and other educational expenses.

The new bill proposes a more expanded version of the program. Under Buckley’s previous version of HB 1, only 25,000 Texas students would’ve been able to participate in the program during the 2024-25 school year. Now, every Texas student would be eligible to apply and there would be no enrollment cap. The bill has a system that would prioritize students with disabilities and low income families.

“This one goes full universal from the jump,” said Jaime Puente, director of economic opportunity for Every Texan. “The only limitation for the voucher program under the new version is the appropriation limit.”

Under current budget proposals, the program would initially have about $500 million at its disposal. Each child in the program would receive about $10,500 a year, meaning that more than 40,000 students would be able to participate. Homeschoolers accepted into the program would receive $1,000.

The bill also includes accountability provisions to sway skeptical House members who have argued that private schools that receive state funds through the program should be held to the same academic standards as public schools. Under the new HB 1, children accepted into the program must take a standardized test; if they have failing grades for two years in a row, they would be kicked out of the program.

But Monty Exter, director of governmental relations for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the accountability requirements in the new bill are a downgrade from its previous version, which would've required voucher program participants to take the same tests as public school students and allowed comparisons between the academic performance of both.

“The new version lets them take, effectively, whatever test they want to,” he said.

Both the Senate and some private school advocates have vehemently opposed giving any sort of assessment to students who participate in a voucher program, saying it takes away from private schools’ autonomy and amounts to state government interference. Accountability should be left with the parents, they argue.

Paige Williams, legislative director for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said the accountability measures are a “step in the right direction” that she hasn't seen in other states' voucher programs. But, she said, education advocates would like to see a basic allotment increase closer to $1,000 to account for inflation spikes since 2019.

“We recognize that that's a big difference from the previous bill,” she said of the basic allotment increase in HB 1. “But we are certainly not looking at any of the parts of the bill as changing our position opposing vouchers.”

School districts have been asking lawmakers to increase the basic allotment as inflation has diluted their buying power. Under state law, districts must use a portion of the new basic allotment funds for teacher and staff compensation increases.

The bill also includes a $4,000 one-time bonus for full-time teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians. That figure goes down to $2,000 if those employees are working part time. The bill includes increased special education funding and several grants related to it.

It also calls for measures to help keep teachers in the profession as Texas grapples with teacher shortages. These include funding to help school districts pay for more teacher residencies and programs that place would-be teachers in classrooms with mentors for about a year, teaching them how to do the job before hiring them as full-time educators the following year.

Free pre-K for children of teachers and increases to the Teacher Incentive Allotment, a program that promises to pay teachers up to six-figure salaries if they meet certain performance requirements, are also included. About 13,000 teachers, or about 4% of the state’s educators, are currently part of the program.

Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, a key member of the House Democratic Caucus, said a voucher program is not negotiable alongside public school funding.

“Our position remains the same: no vouchers, no bribes, no deals,” he said.

Disclosure: Every Texan and Texas Classroom Teachers Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.