TEXAS, USA — Texas Republicans have made “educational freedom” a priority in Austin this legislative session and there is now a bill they say does just that.
SB 8 would provide $8,000 in taxpayer money, per student, for families to move their children from public schools to private schools, including religious schools.
The bill’s author, Sen. Brandon Creighton, says a traditional voucher is money distributed straight to a family.
But the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee says his bill does something different.
“For Education Savings Accounts, as it’s indicated in our policy, the comptroller’s office would take applications for the use of these $8,000 education savings accounts and that would go directly to an approved private school that the family preferred,” Sen. Creighton told us on Inside Texas Politics.
The state of Texas currently provides schools a little more than $6,000 per pupil. But when you add in the amount that local taxpayers chip in, it’s estimated that figure grows to around $10,000 per pupil.
So, the $8,000 figure is the median between those sets of numbers.
But Sen. Creighton says more importantly, they had to find a figure that wouldn’t hold the budget or lawmakers hostage in the future.
“For the $8,000 we just looked at a number that from a scarcity of dollars standpoint that we could comfortably justify in this budget to not create any kind of a fiscal cliff,” said the Republican. “We look at surpluses cautiously because we can’t obligate future legislatures or budgets to money that won’t be there in the future.”
But some critics of SB 8 wonder who will be holding private schools accountable since public schools are held to a different standard, as they’re judged by standardized testing and private schools are not.
Sen. Creighton says the bill empowers parents to make decisions for their own kids and he says there will be an approved list of private schools.
“That’s the difference between a voucher and an education savings account. These schools will be already approved on a list by the state, and they will have very reputable track records,” explained the Senator.
The idea of school choice has fizzled in past legislative sessions due to strong opposition from Democrats, who often represent urban school districts and rural Republicans, who want to protect the public schools in their districts, which are often the largest employers.
But SB 8 offers an enticement to those rural Republicans.
Any district with fewer than 20,000 students would receive $10,000 per student who left a public school for a private school. And this carve out for rural districts would last for two years.
Sen. Creighton says it will help districts “scale” the impact for any student leaving until they get their feet under them.
But he also tells us some other states that have implemented similar ESA options haven’t seen many rural students use the option.
Either way, he calls it a soft landing for medium to smaller districts.
And SB 8 goes far beyond educational savings accounts (ESAs), from having teachers upload lesson plans to a portal so parents can review them to requiring “age appropriate” content.
It will be lawmakers who decide what is and isn’t age and developmentally appropriate, deciding definitions as the bill works its way through the committee process.
“But right now, the legislature will be making those determinations in tightening up definitions based on the will of the membership and expertise and input,” he clarified.
SB 8 also has a companion bill, SB 9, which would include across-the-board pay raises for teachers and likely a modest additional bump for those teaching in rural schools.
“Even though we talk about starting salaries averaging between $58,000 and $60,000 across the state, so many of our rural teachers are still in the upper 30’s, lower 40’s sometimes. So, we’re going to make sure that they’re lifted up in ways that they have not been before,” the Republican touted.
Sen Creighton tells us they’re still in the budgeting process, so exact amounts aren’t known yet.
The big question is whether he has the votes.
He tells us momentum is strong and growing, but he hasn’t counted heads yet.
But the long-time education advocate is adamant Texas can do all of this at the same time.
“Anyone that creates a narrative that you can’t lift up public schools and teachers and also provide educational empowerment for families is just creating a narrative that’s false and divisive,” said Sen. Creighton. “We’re going to be able to accomplish both. And I think the membership will get there.”