Report previews battle over public money to private, home schools

A select committee from the Texas House made a series of recommendations on educational issues ahead of a likely special session

NBC Universal, Inc.

For years the Texas House has been skeptical of distributing public tax dollars to private and home schools without a way to measure if the money is being used wisely. A newly released report indicates that position has not changed ahead of a likely special session on education issues.

Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan (R - Beaumont) formed the select committee to study whether Texas students get a quality education, whether they're getting the best outcomes, and whether schools have appropriate testing and accountability processes in place. The committee heard from 52 witnesses for 17 hours of public testimony earlier this summer.

The select committee recommended any parental choice program, where families would be given public money, be limited, limited to high-need students and have ways to measure student performance and how tax dollars are being used. The most common way to measure academic achievement is through tests.

"Ultimately, the program needs to value the best interest of the student, parent and taxpayer, preserving the quality of education," the select committee wrote. You can read the full report here.

Advocates of school choice, often called a voucher, programs are optimistic because Governor Greg Abbott has become more active in campaigning and advocating for the issue. Many believe he's planning on calling a special legislative session on the topic in October, around five months before the state's primary elections.

Laura Colangelo from the Texas Private Schools Association tells NBC 5 since the state has a surplus of money from a booming economy lawmakers have the opportunity to create a program without touching any of the money already going to public schools. Her association supported a plan for Education Savings Accounts last legislative session, which would have given families eight thousand dollars to spend on private schools or other elected educational programs. It passed easily in the Texas Senate but did not pass the Texas House.

She's cautiously optimistic from the House's interim report seeing a limited school choice program may work if there's some type of assessment which measures student performance. She would like to see a program with around 50,000 students.

"People seem to understand that this is a program that would help kids that need help. This is not going to destroy public schools. I think everyone is tuned in and ready to go, so October should be very interesting," Colangelo said.

Public school advocates worry, however, a small program now may be a larger program later, eating into the students and money dedicated for public school options. Some other states - most recently Florida - have recently expanded their program.

Historically, a voucher-type program sails through the Texas Senate led by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. A coalition of Democrats and rural Republican lawmakers in the Texas House usually prevents any large plan from becoming reality.

Mark Wiggins from the Association of Texas Professional Educators tells NBC 5 House lawmakers have smaller districts and are more connected to their local school district, which almost always opposes allowing private families to get school tax dollars.

"The public schools are the foundation of those communities. They are the heart and soul. So taking money away, taking funding away from those students, away from those schools. It's just a non-starter," said Wiggins.

The group of House lawmakers noted in their report a parental choice option may be a special fund within the state comptroller's office to collect private donations and distribute scholarships to students to attend schools that charge tuition.

The committee recommends looking for ways to expand specialized schools within the public school system: STEM Academies, Early College High Schools, Career and Technical schools, and others.

The select committee also recommended increasing the basic amount of state funding per student to keep up with the cost of inflation, help fund organizations working with truant or chronically absent students, and to help pay to collect information for parents.

According to the report, there are more than 6 million K-12 students in the state. 85% of them go to public schools or public charter schools, 8% are homeschooled and 4% go to private schools.

Contact Us