AUSTIN, Texas (TRIBUNE) – The leading piece of legislation subsidizing private school tuition — one of the most controversial bills this session — will get its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate Public Education Committee.
Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed Senate Bill 3 in late January, combining two separate public programs subsidizing private school tuition and homeschooling expenses. The committee will hear a new version of the bill on Tuesday, as SB 3 has undergone some revisions.
More than 50 students, parents and activists are expected to show up and speak in support of the bill. Teachers associations and anti-school choice policy organizations are mobilizing opponents.
The issue has served as a major source of tension between the House and the Senate. The House is unlikely to take up the bill for a vote, even if it is voted out of the Senate. Several members of the House said this week that they received hundreds of fraudulent letters addressed from constituents asking them to vote for education savings accounts, which would be created through SB 3.
The education savings accounts, or ESAs, would give parents bank accounts of taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and supplies for homeschooling. The original version of the bill said that parents would be able to use debit cards to access the the state funds; the committee substitute strikes that part. Instead, it says they can use "online or electronic" payments.
A second program in SB 3 brings back a proposal for tax credit scholarships, which made it through the Senate last session but died in the House. The proposal would let businesses receive credits against their insurance premium taxes if they contribute to approved scholarship organizations.
Other amendments in the substitute bill would clarify the responsibilities of the comptroller's office in managing the school choice programs. A parent review committee would be required to work with the comptroller to determine the expenses allowed through the education savings accounts.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called on the House to take a vote on the school choice bill this session. He said on a talk radio show this month that the bill would get the needed 76 votes in the House if it made it out of committee. House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said later that the bill in its current form might not make it out of the Senate committee.
A number of House members said they have received fraudulent letters in the last couple of months addressed from constituents asking them to back the ESAs.
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was suspicious when his office fielded 520 letters between mid-February and mid-March from constituents of his rural district, who are more likely to oppose private school choice than support it. All the letters were addressed from Austin and had the full names and addresses of each constituent at the bottom.
Springer started making calls. "We talked to a couple of dozen constituents. No one knows where they're coming from. None of them agree with the positions that they're even taking," he said. He knows of about 10 other representatives who got similar letters.
One of Springer's letters was addressed from former state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, who vacated the seat currently held by Springer about six years ago. "I don't believe in vouchers of any kind," Hardcastle said Monday. "It ought to be illegal ... representing me for something I have no interest in supporting or helping."
Asked about the letters, school choice advocate Randan Steinhauser said there's a lot of enthusiasm about the issue. "We're excited to see that many folks are contacting their legislators. We're looking forward to hearing more about the ways these elected officials are being contacted."
Sue Dixon, a public school teacher in Gatesville for the last 20 years, got a call from state Rep. J.D. Sheffield's office asking whether she had sent a letter lobbying her representative to vote for vouchers.
"I said, 'Absolutely not!'" Dixon said. "I'm upset that someone would hijack my views."
Sheffield, a rural conservative from Gatesville, said he had received about 550 of those letters.