Controversial Senate Bill 4, sponsored by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), which could provide help for thousands of public school students through tuition at private or religious schools, has been approved by the Texas Senate.
Several Democratic amendment proposals were rejected by the 31-member upper chamber, but approval came with an 18-12 vote. The Statesman’s Kiah Collier writes that the measure would provide as much as $100 million in tax credits to businesses that give money to pre-approved non-profits formed to give out funds to up to 16,000 public school students for tuition at alternative institutions. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, along with top Conservative Republicans, are strongly behind the bill.
A final vote will be taken in the Senate this week, and then the legislation would head to the Texas House where the outcome is uncertain. In 2013, the house voted against money being spent on these kinds of programs, which were part of the GOP-led school choice movement.
Taylor said this week that he would require private schools that are receiving the scholarship money to be accredited and to administer yearly exams. He added that the measure was not a voucher program, a concept that pays state money straight to public school students for private school tuition. Those opposed argue that tax credit scholarship programs are just “back door vouchers.”
As for teachers, school groups, and Democrats, they say that the bill will cause money and students to be diverted away from public schools, which they believe are already underfunded.
“At a time when neighborhood schools are being shortchanged, we are extremely disappointed that the Senate has voted to use tax dollars to fund a separate private school voucher system for a handful of select students,” Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said Monday.
At the same time the money is being diverted, it is being rerouted into an unaccountable private school system, writes Morgan Smith of The Texas Tribune.
“They don’t have the same kinds of requirements that our public schools do,” said state Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso). “I can’t seem to get around that.”
Sen. Taylor explained that the money is not public school money, but is private money that is donated. Or, he continued, it is money that a corporation will give to a scholarship program in lieu of paying tax. Opponents answer that losing would-be tax revenue is the same as direct state funding. Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-San Antonio) asked Taylor to add language that would ban private schools participating in the program from using Common Core standards which were removed from the state’s public education system in 2013.
According to Will Weissert reporting for KXAS-TV, public school students, if they choose to do so, could stay in their public schools and apply for $500 scholarships for benefits such as after-school activities, tutoring, and transportation.
There is also concern that too much scholarship money will go to families that are not actually impoverished. A family can qualify for a scholarship and still have an annual income of $80,000.
“Texas simply can’t afford to pay for two separate school systems, one public and one nominally private but subsidized by the state,” Charles Luke from the advocacy group Coalition for Public Schools said in a statement. “The first accountable to taxpayers and the second not accountable.”