Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the program created by SB 8 would not pay for homeschooling expenses.
On the last day of bill filing for the current legislative session, priority legislation on the expansion of school choice and parental rights was finally filed in the Texas Senate.
State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) revealed the bill Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is getting behind to push the expansion of school choice and parental rights, an issue Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have repeatedly expressed support for during the past year.
Some of the bill’s stipulations, however, have educational choice advocates wanting more.
Senate Bill 8 would create education savings accounts administered by Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office in conjunction with “educational assistance organizations,” which would provide $8,000 of state funding per year for each student enrolled. Although Abbott has been promoting the concept of school choice for some time, he endorsed education savings accounts as his preferred policy solution earlier this year.
House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) has not been nearly as outspoken as Abbott or Patrick on the issue of school choice, and none of his priority legislation pertains to the subject. Still, three House members have filed bills to create school choice programs, and the political momentum for expanding education options for Texas students has never been greater.
One of these bills filed in the House is identical to Sen. Mayes Middleton’s Senate Bill 176, which has been touted by national school choice advocate Corey DeAngelis. Creighton’s Senate Bill 8 is similar, but it contains several key differences.
The accounts created by Middleton’s bill would be managed by each participating student’s parents or guardians, while Creighton’s bill would delegate management to educational assistance organizations selected by the comptroller. Both measures, however, authorize the use of account funds for private school tuition, fees for online courses, textbooks and curriculum materials, and tutoring services.
The most significant difference, however, is the carveout for “rural districts” in Creighton’s bill. Senate Bill 8 stipulates that for school districts with fewer than 20,000 enrolled students, every student who transfers to the alternative state-funded program would obligate the state to reimburse the district to the tune of $10,000, which is roughly equivalent to the average cost incurred per student by Texas public schools each year.
Patrick previously spoke about his intent to include such a carveout in his preferred school choice proposal, aiming to quell the oft-repeated argument that school choice would be detrimental to rural school districts.
Interestingly, of the just over 1,000 public school districts throughout the state, 949 have fewer than 20,000 students, including the urban and exceedingly wealthy Prosper ISD, Lake Travis ISD, Alamo Heights ISD, and Highland Park ISD.
Middleton’s bill would also provide more funding than Creighton’s, as the amount allotted per student is equivalent to the average cost incurred per student by Texas public schools each year, or about $10,000. Participation in the program would be restricted by available funding, though, which would be limited to $200 million during the first year and originate in part from donations and premium tax credits purchased by insurance companies. If there are more applications than available funding, priority would be given to students with special needs.
Both bills contain restrictions on which students are eligible to participate in the program. Middleton’s bill requires students to be enrolled in a public school and to have attended a public school for the entirety of the previous school year. Creighton’s bill, however, requires students to be enrolled in a public school or to have attended a public school for 90 percent of the previous school year.
On the issue of parental rights, Creighton’s bill states that parents have the prerogative and ultimate responsibility to educate their children about morality and religion, and it provides parents with a number of tools to ensure the child’s school is not undermining that right.
Among these tools are a no-cost transfer to another school district, access to instructional materials if requested by at least 25 percent of parents, and a standardized grievance process, including an investigation by the Texas Education Agency if a grievance regarding critical race theory or sexual indoctrination is filed.
In addition, the State Board of Education would be prohibited from requiring schools to provide instruction on the subjects of sexual orientation or identity.
Senate Bill 8 was filed on Friday and has yet to be referred to a committee. Senate Bill 176 was filed in November and has been referred to the Public Education Committee.