Texas House’s version of the Senate’s school voucher bill would reduce the program’s scope and replace the STAAR test
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The Texas House’s education committee is planning to vote Wednesday on a new 80-page version of the Senate’s priority school voucher program proposal, which would drastically limit its scope, make changes to the state’s standardized test and remove the bill’s restriction on teaching about gender and sexual orientation.
Senate Bill 8, by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, passed the Senate last month. Its centerpiece is an education savings account program that would work like voucher programs and direct state funds to help Texas families pay for private schooling. The version of the bill approved by the Senate would be open to most K-12 students in Texas and would give parents who opt out of the public school system up to $8,000 in taxpayer money per student each year. These funds could be used to pay for a child’s private schooling and other educational expenses, such as textbooks or tutoring.
What you need to know about education savings accounts, the voucher-like program championed by Gov. Greg Abbott
April 5, 2023
The House version of SB 8 would significantly roll back eligibility, which would be limited to certain students like those with a disability, those who are “educationally disadvantaged” — meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch — or those who attend a campus that received a grade of D or lower in its accountability rating in the last two school years. A child would also be eligible if they have a sibling in the program.
The House version would also require students in the program to take a state assessment test, potentially adding a degree of accountability that critics have said was sorely missing.
In addition, the bill would make changes to the annual stipends that families enrolled in the program get. It would give them about $10,500 a year if their child is educationally disadvantaged and has a disability, $9,000 if their child is educationally disadvantaged and $7,500 for every other child.
It is expected that the new version of the bill won’t be open to testimony before the committee votes on it. Zeph Capo, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers, said lawmakers are making a rushed decision.
“This committee is about to vote on a brand-new 80-page bill they haven’t read and haven’t heard a single piece of testimony on,” he said. “This feels desperate and frenzied — the worst circumstances under which to make public policy.”
The Senate version of SB 8 severely restricted classroom lessons, campus activities and educator guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in public and charter schools up to 12th grade, with very limited exceptions. Creighton has previously told The Texas Tribune that the bill packaged education saving accounts and these restrictions together because parents he talked to view these issues as “inextricably linked.”
The House’s version eliminates those restrictions — but the provision is not dead.
Lawmakers can still amend the legislation, and it’s unclear whether they intend to add back the restrictions into the final version of the bill before it comes for a vote. The lower chamber is also considering Senate Bill 1072, part of which mirrors SB 8’s language on this issue. This bill, authored by Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, passed out of the upper chamber earlier this month and is currently waiting for a hearing in the House Public Education Committee.
The proposal is similar to a ban passed in Florida in 2022, which its opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Last month, the Sunshine State also extended those restrictions from third grade to 12th grade. And like in Florida, critics in Texas have warned that the legislation would stop schools from acknowledging the LGBTQ community’s existence and prevent students from learning about a wide range of issues from marriage equality and the AIDS epidemic to women’s suffrage. They also say it would infringe on students’ free speech protections, especially their right to receive information.
The Texas House’s version of SB 8 also eliminates a Senate provision that sought to give districts with fewer than 20,000 students $10,000 for five years for every child who enrolls in the savings account program and leaves their district. The provision was seen as a way to convince Texans in rural communities to support the bill, but they have remained largely unswayed.
In addition, this version of SB 8 calls for changes to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, more commonly known as the STAAR. No later than the 2027-28 school year, the Texas Education Agency would be tasked with creating a new test that would be more aligned with what children learn in the classroom. The new test would be called the Texas Success Initiative Assessment.
And instead of it being one test, the House version requires the TEA to spread the evaluation in three parts, given during different times of the year. Students in grades 3-8 would be required to take it.
This method has already been piloted in several school districts across the state. The TSIA is currently a test colleges give to high school students to determine what classes they should be in.
For high schoolers, the bill eliminates “end-of-course” STAAR tests. Instead, kids in ninth grade would take a pre-TSIA test, and in 11th grade, they would take the full test to assess what college courses they should be taking.
The legislation also removes the requirement that high schoolers need to pass an assessment to graduate. Failing the assessment would not bar students from receiving a high school diploma under this version.
The changes may make it easier for SB 8 to eventually become law as several House members on both sides have supported STAAR reform. But anything with a voucher program attached — even one with a notably reduced scope — would still face a tough battle in the lower chamber.
In April, the House voted 86-52 for a budget amendment that barred the state from using funds to pay for school vouchers. The vote was largely symbolic but it demonstrated the widespread opposition to voucher-like programs in the lower chamber, even if support has grown in the past two years.
Democrats and rural Republicans have banded together in the past to oppose voucher-like programs as they fear they could take away money from their local school districts. Because Texas school districts receive state funds based on student attendance, they receive less money when any student leaves.
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