The Texas Senate on Thursday approved a major education bill proposing the creation of a not-quite-statewide school choice program. State Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who represents most of Galveston County, spearheaded the bill.
Taylor’s Senate Bill 3 would redirect state money to low-income students through two programs: an education savings account and a tax credit scholarship program.
The savings accounts program would allow families access to online accounts of public money to pay for private school tuition and other expenses. The bill caps the education savings account program by family income, so that a family of three making more than about $75,000 could not participate.
The scholarship program would allow businesses to credit insurance premium taxes if they donate to approved scholarship organizations. The bill caps the program at $25 million.
“There are over 5 million-plus kids in our public schools here in Texas, and this is going to give the opportunity for close to 4 million to have an opportunity, when their situation doesn’t fit them exactly, they have an opportunity,” Taylor said. “The choice they make will not harm anyone else.”
The bill underwent a hefty rewrite over the past few days as Taylor worked to gain more support for the bill. One of the major changes excluded rural counties with populations less than 285,000 from the program.
Earlier versions of the scholarship program had capped the cost at $100 million.
School choice, through the creation of a voucher program, is a major priority of Senate Republicans, as well as of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
The vote passed 18-13. Republican Sens. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, Joan Huffman of Houston and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville voted against the bill, along with almost every Democrat. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., of Brownsville, was the lone Democrat voting in favor.
Critics of the bill say it doesn’t do enough to address the needs of low-income students.
“SB 3 is not a full school-choice bill,” said state Sen. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat. “This bill allows schools to pick and choose who they prefer to educate. In some ways it allows rural schools, who pay taxes to the state, to subsidize private schools in urban counties.”
The Bay Area Schools Consortium, a group that includes Galveston County school districts, opposed the bill for fear it would drain more money from their districts.
Taylor said the bill would save the state millions of dollars. However, the state’s Legislative Budget Board had calculated previous versions of the bill would cost the state between $90 million and $330 million. Taylor did not release the new fiscal note to the Senate before taking up the bill.
The bill will now be sent to the House of Representatives, where it faces an uncertain future. State Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican and the chairman of the House’s Public Education Committee, said during a Texas Tribune event that the school choice bill would be dead when it arrived to the lower chamber.
The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.