Senate tentatively OKs private school scholarship bill

The Texas Senate on Monday tentatively passed 19-12 a bill that would create a private school scholarship program for students with disabilities who want to leave public schools.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, crossed party lines to vote in favor of the bill; Sens. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, crossed party lines to oppose it.

“Most of our students who have special needs are very happy with their current situation. But … we have a lot of personal stories from people who that it is not working for them,” said author of Senate Bill 2 Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. “For this small number of students it gives them an opportunity to go somewhere else.”

Critics have compared the scholarships to private school vouchers, including Sen. José R. Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who on Monday said that private schools don’t guarantee better student performance because they’re not required to administer the same state tests. He and many of his fellow Democrats are concerned that under the bill, private schools wouldn’t be required to follow Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects certain rights of students and enforces individualized education plans, that public schools have to follow.

“The bottom line is that there is that concern … that that choice is not going to be that meaningful … if they’re going to end up going to a school that performs less. That’s one of the reason why some of these parents … decided to leave the private schools and go back to the public schools,” said Rodríguez, who unsuccessfully tried to add an amendment to eliminate the scholarships from the bill.

Under the bill, public school students with disabilities wanting to enroll in private school can receive up to $10,000 in tax credit scholarships each year to help pay for tuition. School districts would retain state funding for that student for one year even after he or she leaves for a private school.

Public school students would receive some money under the bill, too — up to $500 in education assistance, increasing 5 percent each year, to pay for supplies, tutoring and child care among other expenses.

“We’re opening up that opportunity to families where $500 is a lot of money…so they’re going to stay in public schools but use this opportunity for a little bit of extra therapy and training,” said bill supporter Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who has a son with dyslexia.

The tax credit scholarship and education assistance program would be funded by donations from insurance companies which would in turn receive tax credits, capped at $75 million per year.

Taylor said the scholarships would help about 6,000 students and the education assistance program would help 22,000 public school students.

Rodríguez said he was concerned that $10,000 is not enough for parents to afford private school tuition.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, who unsuccessfully tried to add an amendment to SB 2 to extend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to cover private school students who accept the scholarships, said private schools wouldn’t have to report to the state whether students are performing better.

Taylor said that there wasn’t a need for the state to intervene because parents provide the oversight. They can leave the private school if they don’t feel like their children are receiving sufficient services, he said.

The bill would also divert $270 million into public schools from Texas Health and Human Services through deferred payments to Medicaid. The money would go toward other outstanding education issues not addressed in the regular session that have been bundled into SB 2, including construction funding for charter schools and fast-growth school districts and a hardship grant program for about 200 school districts slated to lose an estimated $200 million in Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction.