School finance, education savings accounts to be discussed in Special Session

Special Session: School finance, Education Savings Accounts

AUSTIN, Texas -- The way Texas finances its schools is often described as "lawful but awful". 

This coming budget, the state will fund just 38 percent of what it costs to educate the more than 5-million kids in Texas, leaving 10-percent to the federal government and the rest to taxpayers.

"We spend too much money on bureaucracy and overhead and too little money where it's needed, in the classroom," Governor Greg Abbott (R) said last month when announcing the call for a Special Session.

Abbott said he wants lawmakers to look at school finance during the Special Session. He's not asking them to pass a bill fixing it, but rather to establish a commission to come up with solutions.

During the regular session, the Chair of the House Committee on Public Education, Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston), tried to address school finance.

"When our school finance system's broken, it's the legislature's job to fix it," he told his fellow lawmakers in May.

Huberty's bill, House Bill 21, would have increased how much the state puts in. It passed in the House but when it was taken up in the Senate, a game-changing amendment was added.

"House Bill 21 came back with private school education savings accounts, known as ESAs, even though 104 members of this body voted against using taxpayer dollars for any form of this," Huberty said in May.

ESAs are one of the issues that divide lawmakers not just along party lines, but geographically. They divert money from public schools into accounts parents can use to pay for private school tuition.

Governor Abbott is a big supporter and wants legislation creating ESAs for special needs students passed in the special session.

"I've talked with countless parents who shed tears of joy when talking about the potential for them to choose the school that is best for their child's needs. Those parents, they need our help. Their children deserve it," Abbott said.

Representative Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) authored such a bill, House Bill 1335, during the regular session but it never made it to the House floor. Abbott said he wants to give that bill another chance and asked Simmons to take the lead during the special session.

But just like before, the bill is sure to be met with opposition.

"Parents do not want a coupon to pay to send their kid to a private school across town. What they want is for the school in their neighborhood to be a great school," said Mark Wiggins, Lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE).

The ATPE represents more than 100,000 Texas teachers, administrators and school workers and is against ESAs.

"The people who are trying to push vouchers are trying to sell it by calling it things like "school choice."  Which in fact is something we already have through public charter schools, through magnet schools and in-district transfers," Wiggins added.

Helping Representative Simmons with the bill will be Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). Taylor leads the Senate Committee on Public Education. Abbott has also asked him to write the bill creating the school finance commission.

The Special Session starts July 18.

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