AUSTIN — While the House of Representatives was voting this week against allowing state funding to direct school vouchers and other programs, Senators have been pushing the measure forward.
On Thursday, the Senate voted in favor of two education bills, one of which would establish a state-run Education Savings Account program, the latest iteration of the School Choice movement.
Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to use government funding that would normally go toward public education and put it toward other educational opportunities such as private schools and homeschooling.
Senate Bill 8, from State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, passed 18-13. Participants will be offered $8,000 per student per academic year through the ESA Program.
The program has been highly praised by Republican elected officials and advocates who say they believe ESA will provide equality in the school system by allowing parents to send their children to a good school despite their income level or zip code.
“Today, the Texas Senate has proven that we can raise the bar for public schools, support teachers, empower parents and deliver school choice,” Creighton said after the vote.
ESA has also been supported by Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Commander Dan Patrick, both Republicans. Mark each school choice as a top priority in this legislative session.
“Many of the schools are great, and most of them are good, but we also have schools that are failing our students. This is why we need school choice for parents who want options other than their own failing public school,” Patrick said.
SB 8 also contained several other provisions, including a ban on classroom teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in the curriculum in Pre-K through 12th grade.
It would also establish clear timelines in public schools’ grievance policy, allow free transfers between school districts, subject to capacity, and give parents access to the curriculum.
Furthermore, SB 8 requires parental consent before any changes can be made to student health and wellness activities at school.
“These changes are designed to expand parents’ rights to education,” Patrick said.
The bill now moves to the state assembly, which on Thursday voted on a separate bill to ban public education dollars from being used in non-public schools.
Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Texas Association of Professional Teachers, which opposes both bills, said she is grateful to the representatives and senators “who proudly choose Texas public schools.”
“This fight isn’t over yet, but the results in the House show what we’ve known for a long time: Texas public schools are the backbones of our communities, whether urban, suburban or rural, and we have lawmakers with the backbones to protect those,” Holmes said.
The second education bill approved by Texas senators Thursday, also from Creighton University, is Senate Bill 9, often referred to as the Teachers Bill of Rights.
It would allocate additional money for teacher incentive wages and overall increases for teachers, with larger increases for those in smaller provinces.
Specifically, it will offer a one-time stipend of $2,000 to every teacher in Texas. Teachers in a district with fewer than 20,000 students will receive an additional $4,000.
State Sen. Sarah Eckhart, a Democrat from Austin, said she voted against the bill not because she was against teacher pay increases, but because she believes the state should go further in offering salary adjustments.
Eckhart said she would prefer other bills that have been introduced but not yet referred to committee—the first step in the legislative process—that would tie wages to inflation, so that the purchasing power of teachers would not decline as inflation rose.
“The median (teacher) wage in Texas lags the national average by more than $7,500,” Eckhart said. “The mechanism already in place for backtracking and pushing back is core allocation, but this room has not demonstrated that there is no desire to increase core allocation, let alone index core allocation.”
Holmes, along with the educators’ group, said she believes the bill is “not positive” for classroom teachers and other education professionals and support staff who serve the 5.4 million students in the state’s public schools.
“Introducing a one-time $2,000 salary to some classroom teachers at a time when we are experiencing historic inflation and the state has historical budget surpluses will not address the critical staffing and retention challenges that districts across the state face,” Holmes said. There are also huge trade-offs in the bill for such a disappointingly low salary.”
Other components of SB 9 include creating a program to bring experienced retired teachers back into the classroom, and a provision that would allow teachers to enroll their children in their school’s pre-kindergarten program, if offered free of charge.
Even with the negative response, Republican lawmakers called the approval a win for Texas educators.
“SB 9 is a byproduct of listening to those in the profession to raise the bar for the teaching profession in Texas,” said Patrick.