Lawmakers in Texas on Friday voted down a section of a major education bill that would have created a publicly-funded education savings account (ESA) for students wishing to attend private schools, including religiously-affiliated schools.
The Texas House voted 84-63 Nov. 17 in favor of an amendment to entirely remove a section from H.B. 1 related to school choice. That section would have allowed parents to make use of the equivalent of 75% of the cost of sending the student to public school to instead help pay for the educational institution of their choice. The amendment garnered support from 21 Republicans, most of whom represent rural districts, joined by all the House’s Democrats, KVUE reported.
With the vote, the future of the 177-page education bill itself is now uncertain. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will veto any education legislation that does not contain school choice vouchers and will continue to call lawmakers back to the state capitol until they pass a school choice bill, KVUE reported.
Catholic bishops in the state have expressed support for earlier efforts in the state Legislature to enact school choice, while public school advocates have argued that the ESA program would divert funds away from needy public schools, especially in rural areas with fewer private school options available.
Abbott, a Catholic, has made the school choice provision a legislative priority, saying in a proclamation earlier this month that he had reached an agreement with Texas House leadership to create a $10,400 per year ESA for participating students.
Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB), which advocates for policy in the state on behalf of the bishops, said in a statement to CNA that H.B. 1 will now return to committee, making it challenging to pass during the governor’s special session. She noted that this could mean the loss not only of the potential school choice benefits but also other provisions of the bill such as teacher pay raises and school safety upgrades.
The vote against the school choice provision of the bill was disappointing, but “the issue is not over yet,” Allmon said.
“Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will call a fifth special session for parental choice. We don’t know if that will be between Thanksgiving and Christmas or in January, but whenever there is an opportunity to advocate for parental choice in education, we will be ready to stand up for families who need it most,” Allmon said.
“While there were several setbacks this past week, with the approaching holiday, we are reminded our faith calls us to gratitude. Today we are giving thanks for the opportunity to do God’s work on behalf of the common good. We are grateful for our bishops, priests, religious, families, and all Catholics who do so much to spread God’s love across Texas. We are grateful for all of you who made calls, sent emails, and came to the Capitol to advocate with us.”
The bill included several eligibility requirements, including a prioritization for low-income disabled students as well as children from households making less than 185% of the federal poverty level — roughly $55,500 for a family of four. Eligible students include those in private schools as well as children who home-school, TCCB says.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents have “the first responsibility for the education of their children” (No. 2223). Mothers and fathers, the catechism says, retain the right to both teach their children the morals imparted by the Church and “to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions” (No. 2229).
Early 2023 data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), which advocates for policy in the U.S. on behalf of Catholic school students, showed that just 10.5% of Catholic school students nationwide participate in a parental choice program. The push for school choice is gaining momentum, however, with seven states in 2023 alone enacting school choice programs that are available to all students, i.e. “universal.”
Most recently, in September, North Carolina became the 10th U.S. state to enact universal school choice by removing certain barriers to a state program that provides tuition assistance for students attending private schools. In some of those 10 states, such as Arizona and Indiana, nearly all of the state’s Catholic schools take part in school choice programs.