AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas House lawmakers voted Friday to block a plan to establish education savings accounts (ESAs) after rural House Republicans pushed an amendment stripping ESAs from a major school funding package being considered on the floor.
State Rep. John Raney, a College Station Republican and longtime opponent of any school voucher plan, proposed the amendment to eliminate the entire section of the bill that would establish ESAs. Twenty-one Republicans signed onto that amendment, setting it up for success when all Democrats voted for it.
The defeat came as a major loss for Gov. Greg Abbott, who has spent the entire year lobbying for the creation of so-called school choice. For months, the governor toured rural areas of the state, holding events promoting his legislative priority. He has threatened to call lawmakers back again and again for indefinite special sessions until ESAs are passed, vowing to back primary opponents for the Republicans who do not follow his lead. However, Friday’s defeat marked the first major loss for Abbott — considering the House had not previously held a vote on the measure itself.
In a statement from Abbott, he showed no signs of backing down.
“Today’s vote is just another step on the path to provide school choice for parents and students across Texas. I will continue advancing school choice in the Texas Legislature and at the ballot box, and will maintain the fight for parent empowerment until all parents can choose the best education path for their child. I am in it to win it,” he said.
The governor went on to note that it is only a minority of Republicans who are against ESAs, and were able to garner the votes by coalescing with Democrats.
The following Republicans joined all of the House Democrats in voting against vouchers: They are: Reps. John Raney, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Keith Bell of Forney, DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Jay Dean of Longview, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Justin Holland of Rockwall, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Ken King of Canadian, John Kuempel of Seguin, Stan Lambert of Abilene, Andrew Murr of Junction, Four Price of Amarillo, Glenn Rogers of Graford, Hugh Shine of Temple, Reggie Smith of Sherman, Ed Thompson of Pearland and Gary VanDeaver of New Boston.
HB 1 will now go back to committee, where its fate remains uncertain. Tied into the bill also includes historic funding to public schools and teacher pay raises, but Abbott has said he will veto any legislation brought to his desk if it does not include ESAs.
Public Education Chair Brad Buckley, R-Killen, told reporters after the vote that he does not intent to have another hearing on the $7.6 billion omnibus bill. It also includes a one-time $4,000 bonus for full-time teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors that would translate to a pay raise in subsequent school years. HB 1 also proposes increasing the per-pupil funding, also know as the basic allotment for public schools, from $6,160 to $6,700.
According to a fiscal analysis by the Legislative Budget Board, HB 1 would cost the state more than $36 billion through 2028, including $7.6 billion in just the next two years. The ESA provision would allow students who leave public schools to access $10,500 for private school each year. Homeschooled students leaving public schools could get up to $1,000. The accounts would be prioritized to students with disabilities and low-income families, but every Texas student is eligible.
Even before the debate began, HB 1 attracted criticism from both the strongest liberals and staunchest conservatives.
“You’re gonna see debate on a massive public education bill, combined with a tiny school choice program. And the reason that massive spending is in there is the belief by some that you essentially have to buy the votes to get school choice started,” State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, told Nexstar. He joins some other conservatives who are concerned the high price of the bill does not provide education savings accounts to enough children.
Democrats, meanwhile, said they will stand against any ESA provision as they have all year.
“We have still not taken care of our teachers, who are the guardians of education for our public school system. And I think that’s what we should be doing first, instead of holding them hostage, trying to get a voucher,” State Rep. Carl Sherman, D-Desoto told Nexstar.
House Democratic leaders are instructing their caucus to allow Republicans to lead the way on the anti-ESA amendment, according to internal communications obtained by Nexstar.
“This will be the most important amendment of the day, and we are confident our bipartisan majority will support it,” caucus leaders wrote to their members. “We do not want to do anything that will jeopardize votes to defeat school voucher scams.”
Public Education Chair Brad Buckley introduced his bill with a poignant and personal speech on his support for ‘school choice.’ He argued these state subsidies will allow families to find the best educational options for their children.
“Will today be a resounding no to the second grader who can’t read? Will it be a resounding no to the parents with two kids with autism?,” Buckley asked members.
This coverage is ongoing. Follow along here for updates.