(The Center Square) – On the first day of the third special legislative session this year, Texas state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, filed two key companion bills related to education.
Senate Bill 1, the Texas Education Freedom Act, would provide Texas families with school choice options, prioritized in the call for the special session by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Senate Bill 2 would provide record funding for public school education, including increasing the basic allotment for per-student funding and giving raises to teachers across the board.
Creighton filed SB 1 and SB 2 as companion bills on Monday.
“Educating the next generation of Texans is a fundamental responsibility, and it is my belief that empowering parents with school choice will encourage competition, innovation and ensure that every student in Texas has the opportunity to find an educational path for their unique needs,” Creighton said. SB 1 creates education savings accounts (ESA) of up to $8,000 per student and gives Texas families “the power to determine the best school for their child, with their tax dollars,” he said.
Currently, 31 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., offer school choice options, and Creighton said “there is no reason Texas should not offer the same options to our students and families.”
SB 1 would allocate $500 million to fund the ESA program from the general revenue fund. This is separate from public school funding appropriated in SB 2. General revenue dollars come from sales taxes and severance taxes and are not funded with Foundation School Program dollars allocated for public schools.
The funds would be administered through the state Comptroller’s office for approved education-related expenses instead of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The bill would require the comptroller to implement robust fraud prevention and audits of the program.
SB 1 and SB 2 demonstrate “that lawmakers can provide school choice options and lift up public schools,” Creighton said. “We will provide across the board pay raises for Texas teachers, infuse historic new funds into public education and school safety, and finally deliver education freedom for the 6 million students in Texas.”
Students would be eligible to receive ESAs if they are enrolled in Pre-K through 12th grade public schools or enrolled in Pre-K or Kindergarten in public schools for the first time, according to the bill.
ESA funds may only be used for specific education-related expenses including tuition and fees for a private school, purchasing textbooks and other instructional materials for a required course, purchasing uniforms required by a school, paying for costs related to academic assessments, covering fees for a private tutor or teaching service, transportation, or educational therapies or services provided by a practitioner or provider. And private schools must be accredited to participate.
Since the program would be the first of its kind, the bill would allocate only $500 million, opening up 62,500 slots for students to apply. As interest grows in the program, it’s expected to expand to allow for more students to apply.
Once enacted, if there are more applicants than available positions in the ESA program, a certified educational assistance organization shall prioritize eligible students, according to the bill language. The majority of students that would be prioritized are low-income or disadvantaged students.
The first 40% of available positions will be prioritized for students that qualify for free or reduced lunch who attended public school last year or are entering PreK or kindergarten for the first time. The next 30% of available positions will prioritize students whose parents earn between 185% and 500% of the federal poverty level who attended public school last year or are entering PreK or kindergarten for the first time.
The next 20% of available positions will prioritize students with a disability who attended public school last year or are entering PreK or kindergarten for the first time. The remaining 10% of available positions will be open to students who attended public and private schools or who are homeschooled.
On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee is holding its first public hearing on Creighton’s bills. On Thursday, Abbott, state lawmakers and the Texas Public Policy Foundation are hosting a Parental Empowerment Leadership Summit in Austin.