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The latest school choice bill adds teacher raises. But is it enough to pass in the Texas Legislature?

 A close-up photo of the tan stone dome of the Texas Capitol building. A statue of a woman holding a five-pointed star stands on top of the dome. Just in front of the dome, an American flag flies above a Texas flag.
Eric Gay
The U.S. and Texas flags fly over the Texas Capitol during the first day of the 88th Texas Legislative Session in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

The fight over voucher-like Education Savings Accounts continues in Austin as the fourth special legislative session gets underway Thursday.

In the next 30 days, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants lawmakers to approve a program that would send public tax dollars to private schools.

Despite more than a year-long push by Abbott — and 3 special sessions — lawmakers have so far failed to pass legislation on education savings accounts, or ESAs.

The latest proposal before lawmakers, House Bill 1, is from Rep. Brad Buckley, chair of the House Education Committee. The bill would not only establish $10,500 per ESA student that families could use to enroll in private school, but it would also raise the state’s allotment for each of the 5.5 million or so kids in the state’s independent school districts.

”Whether or not they're going to pass vouchers is less important to me than making sure that our schools are funded appropriately,” said Larry Calhoun, superintendent of Overton ISD in rural east Texas.

Calhoun may like the additional dollars in the bill, while wishing it were even more, but he dislikes the political game.

“School funding is kind of hanging in the balance and is being used as leverage for passing vouchers," he said. "I don't like it. I don't think the two should be connected.”

Neither does the Texas AFT, one of the main teachers unions in the state.

“It is still very much a hostage situation," said spokesperson Nicole Hill. "If vouchers can stand on their own, they should."

So far though, they haven’t. So House Bill 1 also includes a $4,000 raise for teachers, and a requirement that ESA students take the same test public school students take. In the previous bill that failed in the 3rd special session, private schools getting public money weren’t held publicly accountable.

“Students would be required to take the state test or a nationally known reference test. There would be annual audits,” Nathan Cunneen with the American Federation for Children, which advocates for voucher like programs, said about Buckley's bill.

“But the most powerful form of accountability is the freedom to get up and take your business elsewhere.”

Cunneen said that’s what could happen if ESAs become law.

In Texas, where money follows the student, the Texas AFT says just a few students leaving a school district for a private school could harm the entire district and all of its kids.

There’s another accountability measure in HB1. If that ESA student fails two years running in the private school, they would lose the ESA entirely.

Who else would take that student? In Texas, public school districts say it’s their role to educate every child, no matter their language, family income, or ability. So that ESA student would likely return to their independent school district.

And on that, the American Federation for Children and the American Federation of Teachers can agree.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.