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Education savings accounts face questions about accountability in Texas Senate hearing

Supporters of education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would give parents state funds to school their children outside the public education system, held signs during an event at the Capitol in Austin on March 21, 2023.
Jordan Vonderhaar
The Texas Tribune
Supporters of education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would give parents state funds to school their children outside the public education system, held signs during an event at the Capitol in Austin on March 21, 2023.

More than 380 supporters and opponents signed up Wednesday to testify on the proposal, which would allow parents to use state funds to send their children to private schools.

Texas senators on Wednesday held their first meeting to discuss education savings accounts — one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top causes this legislative session — giving a glimpse at the support behind the program and the questions it faces about how it works, who it benefits and its broader impact on the public education system.

“We will see a strengthening of the parochial private schools and we will see a weakening of the public schools,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, who testified against the bill proposing such accounts.

More than 380 supporters and opponents attended the Senate Committee on Education meeting and signed up to testify on Senate Bill 8, authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, which would create a program similar to vouchers that would let parents who opt out of the public education system use taxpayer money to pay for their children’s private schooling.

Senators will most likely vote in the next committee meeting whether the bill goes before the full Senate. The next meeting doesn’t yet have a date set.

Through the program, also a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the state would deposit up to $8,000 per student into these accounts to be used on private school tuition, tutors, uniforms and other approved educational expenses.

Religious organizations have been big advocates for education savings accounts and voucher-like programs in other parts of the country.

Bishop Michael Olson of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth said Creighton’s bill would empower parents to choose other educational options and said legislators should consider adding provisions that prioritize benefiting low-income families.

“Parental choice programs provide hope for the thousands of families who need better access to personalized educational options and are currently denied access to their tax dollars for exercising this natural right,” he said.

Supporters have framed education savings accounts as a tool to give parents more choices when deciding how and where to educate their children. But similar programs have faced staunch opposition from Democrats and rural Republicans, who worry using state money to pay for private schooling will result in less funding for public schools in areas with fewer education options.

“There’s no offense meant towards our public schools,” Creighton said. “We’re talking about our Texas parents, our moms and dads and their kids and the expectations for them.”

A University of Texas at Austin survey, released earlier this month, found that 46% of voters supported education savings accounts, while 41% opposed them. But it showed that the issue was not a high priority for voters as those surveyed felt that school safety, teacher compensation and curriculum are more important.

When introducing SB 8 to the committee, Creighton said that education savings accounts would not affect the state’s public education budget. He said funding for the program would come from the state’s general revenue fund rather than the Foundation School Program, which is the primary source of state funding for Texas school districts.

But public school leaders have expressed concerns that the savings account program would worsen the enrollment declines they’ve had in recent years — and in Texas, where school districts receive state dollars based on student attendance, that would mean less funding.

Senators intend to allocate about half a billion dollars to the savings account program, estimating that about 60,000 students will use it in the first two years.

SB 8 offers a kind of concession for school districts in rural areas: Any school district with fewer than 20,000 students that loses kids to the savings account program would continue to receive funding for those children for the first two years.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, questioned whether the program would actually provide more educational options for all parents, noting that $8,000 may not be enough to cover the extra costs that may come with private schooling.

“If they can’t pay for the whole tuition and they can’t pay for the books and can’t pay for the uniforms and can’t pay for transportation or the meal plan, how does this provide all parents freedom?” Menéndez asked Creighton.

Creighton responded that the average private school tuition in Texas is slightly less than $10,000 a school year and that plenty of schools charge well under that amount.

Sen. Morgan LaMantia, D-South Padre Island, said she hopes the state has a plan to prevent low-tuition private schools from jacking prices up to collect every cent parents will get from their education savings account.

On the other hand, Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was upset that Creighton’s bill would not allow parents with children currently enrolled in private schools to enroll in the program.

“I want to make sure that we do right by those parents,” he said.

The committee also discussed three other proposals to create an education savings account program that have been filed in the Senate. Those versions would allow any child to use the program, but only Creighton’s proposal was designated as a priority bill for this legislative session.

Creighton said his bill does not allow parents already in private schools to apply for an education savings account to prioritize state funding and make sure it benefits applicants from public schools that have received a grade of C, D or F in the state’s accountability rating system, which is largely based on students’ test scores.

“We have to start somewhere and there is a scarcity of dollars,” he said.

Another concern was how the state will prevent program participants from misusing the funds they receive from the state.

Creighton said the state comptroller would have jurisdiction over the accounts, and a third-party vendor would distribute the funds directly to private schools and education services providers that have been approved by the Texas Education Agency.

Creighton added that the comptroller will conduct account audits to prevent fraud.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who filed similar legislation to create education savings accounts, said his version of the program would allow a third party to audit accounts and notify the comptroller of any violations.

“We’re not playing around with the public’s money,” he said. “If you can’t keep it straight, don’t get into this program.”

How private schools use state funds they receive from parents is a different matter.

Whether the state should oversee how students are performing academically at private schools receiving taxpayer money has been a big question at the center of the debate over education savings accounts. In most cases, states that adopt voucher-like programs do not have any jurisdiction to monitor private schools like they do with their public counterparts.

Creighton made it clear that his bill would not require any state testing for private schools.

Proponents of the bill argue that parents will ultimately act as the highest level of accountability as they can choose to leave the schools.

“Private schools will set their criteria, and parents will make the decision on whether or not that criteria is fair,” Creighton said.

Chloe Sikes, deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association, said she worries that private schools will receive taxpayer funds but won’t be held financially or educationally accountable.

“There are some random audits but no academic accountability about students’ outcomes, their performance and how they do later in life,” she said.

Creighton’s education savings account bill also includes a provision that would restrict how gender and sexual orientation is taught in public schools.

During the hearing Wednesday, Creighton introduced a new provision for SB 8 that significantly restricts classroom instruction and school activities about gender identity and sexual orientation in all public and charter schools. A previous version of the bill would have allowed such lessons or programming if presented in a manner that is developmentally or age-appropriate.

Menéndez questioned if the bill’s language would suppress a student’s free speech. Creighton said this is not imposing any ideas on students, rather making sure that these conversations on such topics take place at home.

“It’s not about the students expressing their opinions or certain thoughts,” he said. “It’s about teaching instruction.”