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GOP-led Texas House votes to remove school voucher provision of education omnibus bill

 People gathered to protest school vouchers during a demonstration at the Texas Capitol.
Becky Fogel
People gathered to protest school vouchers during a demonstration at the Texas Capitol.

The Republican-led Texas House of Representatives voted on Friday to remove a provision from an education omnibus bill that would create a school voucher-like program for Texas.

The House’s move is a blow to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has spent the past year championing education savings accounts and pressuring lawmakers to vote for them. Before Friday’s amendment stripping the measure from House Bill 1, today would have been the first time in nearly two decades that the Texas House voted on such a program.

Debate on HB 1 started around 1 p.m. Friday and is expected to last much of the day. At least 43 amendments have been filed.

The bill’s author, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, opened Friday’s debate by saying his proposal strikes a balance between funding public education and empowering parents.

"I'm certain that HB 1 invests in the eternal truth that no one is more important in the education of a child than a parent," Buckley said while explaining his bill on the House floor.

Politics The Texas House will vote on school vouchers Friday. Here's what to expect. Sergio Martínez-Beltrán

He also pushed back against comments that HB 1 could dismantle public education because of the voucher provision.

“It is absolutely important to fund our public schools, help make up for this tremendous inflationary burden that they're under, but also give parents every tool in the toolbox,” Buckley said.

The most controversial provision of House Bill 1 was the creation of voucher-like education savings accounts. Those ESAs would give students who qualify $10,500 per year to use towards private or parochial school tuition, along with other education-related expenses. The bill also allocates funding for school safety and increases the basic allotment, the state’s per-pupil funding.

But an amendment to the proposal filed early Friday by Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, took ESAs out of HB 1. Over a dozen Republicans signed the amendment, and even more Democrats and Republicans supported it.

“I believe in my heart — using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative and it's bad policy,” Raney, who is not running for reelection, said.

Raney said he’s served in the House for six terms and that this was the first time he had “come to drastically change a colleague’s bill.”

Voucher-like programs have stalled in the House in the past — and while House members seem eager to finally vote on the measure, Democrats and rural Republicans have vowed to oppose it.

Friday’s 84-63 vote to remove ESAs is likely to kill the other provisions in HB 1, including salary raises for teachers, since Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will not sign education legislation that doesn’t include them.

“I would just have to veto it, would have to start all over again,” Abbott told reporters at a press conference last week. “We’d be spending December here, maybe January here, maybe February here, and I know one thing about both the House and Senate: They want to get out of here.”

Since Day One, HB 1 was guaranteed to have an uphill battle.

During the regular session, 24 Republicans stood together to block the use of public funds for the creation of education savings accounts.

Ahead of the vote, Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, told CBS Texas that he would not vote for HB 1 as long as it includes a school voucher provision.

“As constitutional conservatives, one of the main questions I ask myself is, is it conservative to have a general revenue expansion of government to the tune of $500 million to a billion dollars over the next few years for just a few students in the state of Texas to take advantage of?” Holland said.

He added the only way he’d support the proposal is without school vouchers.

Anti-school voucher and pro-voucher groups show to the Capitol

Ahead of Friday’s vote, dozens of supporters of HB 1 convened at the Texas Capitol wearing blue t-shirts that read “PARENTS MATTER.”

Michael Walton, a former educator who now works for the religiously oriented conservative non profit The Justice Foundation, told The Texas Newsroom public schools are failing students and that school vouchers would give parents opportunities to better help their kids.

“I want to see the kids turn around, I want to see the school systems turn around,” Walton said. “It’s not going to happen as long as (public schools) don’t have competition.”

But Robert Norris, the founder of Grandparents for Public Schools, said that while he believes in choice for parents, school vouchers should not be the vehicle for that.

He said parents already can choose where to send their kids to school, and using public funds for private education would dismantle public schools.

“We do not want money to be drained away from public schools only to be used as a tuition subsidy by affluent families to go to private schools,” Norris said. “They don’t need it, taxpayers don’t want it.”

This is the farthest a voucher-like proposal has made it in the Texas House since 2005.

Copyright 2023 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.