House Emphatically Rejects Senate Voucher “Poison Pill”

The Senate’s attempt to force acceptance of a private-school voucher scheme by inserting it in a House school-finance bill suffered a major setback today. The House voted 134 to 15 against concurrence in the Senate changes to HB 21, the good school-finance bill by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). Not only that, the House for good measure supported a motion to instruct House negotiators to reject the inclusion of any voucher provision whatsoever if and when a House-Senate conference committee comes to a final agreement on HB 21. The margin on that anti-voucher instruction was 101 for and 45 against. The pro-voucher faction on the House floor tried to reverse that result with an instruction to “consider all methods of educational choice for special-education students,” but their gambit failed on a vote of 47 for, 89 against.

In rejecting the Senate’s version of HB 21 and calling on the House not to concur, House author Huberty issued a fiery denunciation of both the voucher “poison pill” and the Senate’s gutting of the school-funding increases and reforms in his bill. Huberty said the Senate was so intent on its private-school voucher stratagem that it neglected to provide any method of funding even for the meager remnant of public-school funding tweaks left in the Senate version of HB 21.

Later on Wednesday afternoon, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer and prime mover behind the voucher push, lashed back at Huberty and the House, declaring that the House response to his ploy means HB 21 is dead. However, the last chapter has yet to be written on this bill. The House has named a negotiating team of five conferees to meet with Senate counterparts if Patrick is willing to let negotiations proceed. The five House conferees are:  Huberty; Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio); Ken King (R-Canadian); Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin); and Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston).

You can help set the right tone for any further work on HB 21 by sending your e-letter from the Texas AFT legislative-action site exhorting your House member to stand firm against private-school vouchers in HB 21 or any other legislation.

The case against the “education savings account” vouchers (ESAs) targeting students with disabilities in the Senate version of HB 21 is overwhelming. ESAs siphon taxpayer funds directly from public schools and divert the money to subsidize private, religious, and home schools. With Texas public schools already underfunded, Texas can’t afford this voucher scheme.

Students with disabilities in special education receiving a voucher under this Senate scheme would give up their federal protections upon exiting the public school.  This includes their rights to due process under admissions, review, and dismissal  (ARD) committees and other federal protections.

No accountability exists under ESAs. Private and religious schools that would access taxpayer dollars through this voucher program are not accountable to the state. The Senate version of HB 21 would allow these schools to receive taxpayer money without meeting the same curriculum or fiscal requirements of a Texas public school.  Texans overwhelmingly believe that schools that receive tax dollars should be accountable for how they are spent, but the schools that receive vouchers would not be accountable to taxpayers.

ESAs also violate the separation of church and state and the First Amendment.  The Senate version of HB 21 provides public funds that can be used in any private or religious school. ESAs provide no disallowance for religious content of services or educational products funded with taxpayer dollars.

As Rep. Huberty said on the House floor today, HB 21 as passed by the House included much more of benefit to special-education students than the Senate’s voucher scheme could offer. Huberty’s version of HB 21 includes grants for students with autism, a new funding weight adding resources for students with dyslexia, and an increase in per-pupil funding for all students, including more than 600,000 with disabilities. If the Senate were willing, Huberty said, it would still be possible to deliver a substantial school-funding increase and even more aid for students with disabilities, without any need to subsidize private schools, which are not required to provide the same protections for these vulnerable children that are demanded of public schools.