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A committee in the Texas House of Representatives has advanced school voucher legislation that could be key to ending the prolonged deadlock on the issue this year at the Capitol.
By a vote of 10-4, the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment approved House Bill 1 on Friday. This is a broad education bill that includes a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts that allows parents to use taxpayer money to subsidize private school fees.
Gov. Greg Abbott pushed for the proposal all year, prompting four special sessions. The committee’s approval marks the most progress a voucher bill has received in the House in recent history.
The bill now goes to the House Calendars Committee, which is responsible for moving bills to the floor for votes in the full chamber.
The 10-4 vote fell along party lines. The four no votes were all Democratic, while the committee’s fifth Democrat, Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, was absent.
House Bill 1 would establish an education savings account initiative that would set aside $10,500 each year per student for private school expenses. The program would prioritize students from low-income families and those with disabilities.
Critics of the bill fear it will divert funding from public education.
Other provisions of the bill include an increase in the state’s per-student spending, from $6,160 to $6,700. It would also increase teacher pay.
House Democrats downplayed the significance of the committee vote that preceded it, suggesting the bill still faced tough hurdles in the full House. In a letter to members, caucus Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer said the vote would be a “reflection of the desire of the entire House to have a final vote for or against the right element of this bill “.
“The vote is not and should not be considered a reflection of the commission’s position on the merits of a voucher scam,” wrote Martinez Fischer of San Antonio.
Democrats have long joined rural Republicans in opposing school vouchers in the House. Among the 10 Republicans who voted for HB 1 on Friday, four had come out against school vouchers in a test vote earlier this year: Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Keith Bell of Forney, Ken King of Canadian and Gary VanDeaver of New Boston.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, was under intense pressure — from the governor and others — to craft a bill that could rally rural Republicans.
Abbott put a lot of political capital on the line trying to get a good bill to his desk, but he was thwarted by the House in the regular session and again in the third special session. He threatened that if lawmakers failed to do so in a fourth special session, he would focus on making it an issue against GOP holdouts in their March primaries.
The Senate has long passed its own voucher legislation, including its latest bill Thursday night. That proposal, Senate Bill 1, would create an education savings account program that would distribute $8,000 per student.
The Upper House has a separate bill, Senate Bill 2, that addresses public school funding.