Texas Senate passes four priority bills, including school choice

(The Center Square) – Within two days of Gov. Greg Abbott calling a fourth special legislative session, the Texas Senate passed four bills, advancing all of his legislative priorities late…

(The Center Square) – Within two days of Gov. Greg Abbott calling a fourth special legislative session, the Texas Senate passed four bills, advancing all of his legislative priorities late Thursday night and early Friday morning, including two border security bills and two education bills.

At the top on the list was Abbott’s priority legislative goal of the year: to create school choice in Texas for the first time in state history.

Abbott called two previous special sessions this year for the legislature to pass a school choice bill filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe. But the bill went nowhere in the Republican-controlled House.

Last month, during the third special legislative session, Abbott expanded the call to include additional funding for public education, but Creighton’s bill, which the Senate passed again, went nowhere in the House.

On Thursday, two days after Creighton’s bills, SB 1 and SB 2, were filed, the Senate passed them again. The fourth special session is the fourth attempt to pass Creighton’s school choice bill in both chambers for Abbott to sign.

“Texans across the political spectrum agree that families must have choice in education to ensure their student has the best chance of success. Thirty-one states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C., offer education savings accounts for their students, and Texas students should not be left behind. The Texas Senate has passed school choice bills in 2015, 2017, and now four times this year,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement.

The Senate passed SB 1, “Empowering Parental Rights,” which creates universal Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), funding $8,000 per student per year to be used for a range of tuition and education-related purposes.

It gives Texas families “the power to determine the best school for their child, with their tax dollars,” Creighton said. “Senate Bill 1 is not merely legislation, it’s a pledge to Texas parents, a testament to our trust in their decision-making capabilities and investment in the dreams of our young Texans respecting their individual specific education needs.”

“A one-size-fits-all approach to education in a state with 254 counties and 8,000 campuses leaves many of our students behind and makes no sense,” Patrick said. “Even students in great schools may not have their unique needs met for a variety of reasons. Different students thrive in different environments. Parents must have options other than just their local public school, and the passage of this universal ESA bill represents a great opportunity to place education freedom back in their hands.”

School choice has been held up in the House primarily by Republicans in rural districts who oppose it for several reasons. All Democrats oppose the measure.

The Senate also again passed SB 2, “Teacher Pay Raise and School Funding Increases,” which is a slightly revised version of what passed in the third special session.

The over $5.2 billion funding bill increases rural teacher salaries by $10,000 and urban teacher salaries by $3,000. It expands eligibility under the Teacher Incentive Allotment to allow at least 50% of teachers to earn designations that come with additional pay. It also increases the basic per student funding allotment by $75 per student, doubles the per-student school safety allotment from $10 to $20, and doubles the per-campus allotment from $15,000 to $30,000.

After the bills passed, Creighton said, “The future of Texas begins in the classroom, and earlier tonight the Texas Senate passed legislation that dedicates historic funds into public education, provides across the board raises for Texas teachers, and finally empowers Texas families with universal school choice. The laws we pass today determine the Texas of tomorrow – and these bills will unleash the unlimited potential of Texas students when they have education options that fit each of their respective needs.”

House Democrats disagree and in the third special session introduced their own bill to give all teachers $15,000 raises in a $40 billion spending package. The bill went nowhere.

Republican state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, who has historically been against school choice, filed HB 1, an omnibus education funding package. It increases the basic student funding allotment by slightly more than Creighton’s bill, and provides salary and bonus amounts for teachers using different criteria. Buckley’s bill also allocates roughly $10,500 to ESAs. Home-school students would receive $1,000, according to the bill analysis. His plan also limits the number of students eligible to receive ESAs to 40,000. There were over 5.4 million students enrolled in public schools in the 2021-2022 school year, according to TEA.

Previously, Abbott said he’d reached an agreement with Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, on passing school choice. But as conflict between Patrick and Phelan escalated, no education bills passed, necessitating a fourth special session.

Only the governor can call a special legislative session, which lasts for 30 days.

Abbott lauded the bills’ passage, saying if enacted they would advance “progress for education freedom, public school funding.”