Texas House votes to remove school vouchers from massive education bill

By Zach Despart and Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

​The Texas House on Friday voted to strip school vouchers from the chamber’s massive education funding bill, effectively gutting Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priority from the legislation.

The House voted 84-63 in favor of an amendment offered by Rep. John Raney of College Station, which removed the provision of the bill allowing some parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools. Twenty-one Republicans, most of whom represent rural districts, joined all Democrats in support.

They are: Raney, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Keith Bell of Forney, DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Jay Dean of Longview, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Justin Holland of Rockwall, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Ken King of Canadian, John Kuempel of Seguin, Stan Lambert of Abilene, Andrew Murr of Junction, Four Price of Amarillo, Glenn Rogers of Graford, Hugh Shine of Temple, Reggie Smith of Sherman, Ed Thompson of Pearland and Gary VanDeaver of New Boston.

The outcome was an embarrassment to Abbott, who spent seven months lobbying two dozen Republicans who signaled opposition to vouchers in a test vote during the regular legislative session in April. His various strategies included holding events at private schools in rural areas, tying vouchers to increased public school funding, calling two special sessions dedicated to education, threatening to support primary challengers to Republicans who opposed vouchers and announcing a breakthrough deal with the holdouts that did not appear to exist.

None of it worked.

Just four of the former Republican holdouts opposed the anti-voucher amendment on Friday: Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Brooks Landgraf of Odessa, Angelia Orr of Itasca and David Spiller of Jacksboro. But Thompson was a new anti-voucher vote, bringing the governor’s net gain to three.

The future of is now in doubt; Abbott has said he will veto any education legislation that does not contain vouchers. The governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bill, authored by Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, is a $7 billion omnibus bill that would also boost spending for public schools. It would increase the basic allotment — the base amount allocated to districts per student — from $6,160 to $6,700 and would be adjusted for inflation starting in the 2026-27 school year. It also includes a one-time $4,000 bonus for full-time teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians.

But its key provision was school vouchers. The bill would create education savings accounts, a voucher program that would allow about 40,000 students who exit the state’s public education system to either receive $10,500 annually for private school expenses or up to $1,000 for homeschooling. The program would prioritize students from low-income families and those with disabilities, but every child would be eligible for the money as funds allow.

The governor has threatened to continue calling lawmakers back to Austin until they pass a bill. Republican opponents of the measure are facing threats of challenges in the upcoming 2024 primaries.

After four special sessions — two of which were specifically intended to pass vouchers — Abbott has failed to gain any significant support for his education priority in the Texas House, which has for decades been standing in the way of school vouchers. Even after threatening to support primary challengers for those that went against his wishes and potentially calling more special sessions, both a majority of Republicans and Democrats in the House still stand in the way.

The 84-63 vote to strip the vouchers from HB 1 was similar to a budget amendment vote that House members took in April during the regular session, which would have prohibited lawmakers from using funds for a voucher program.

That amendment during the spring, authored by Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, passed with a 86-52 vote. While the amendment was ultimately a symbolic vote, as it was stripped from the final budget bill, it signaled that Abbott had his work cut out for him.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/11/16/texas-house-school-vouchers/.

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