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Senate Education Committee Hears Testimony on SB 3 Voucher Bill

03.22.2017 — The Senate Committee on Education met Tuesday to discuss SB 3. Following is a summary of SB 3 as filed, though a substitute bill has been filed and changes continue to be made.
 

Education Savings Account Program
The bill would create the Education Savings Account Program, to be administered by the Comptroller of Public Accounts, to provide funding for certain-education related expenses of eligible children who are not otherwise enrolled in a public school. The bill would set the eligibility criteria as a child who was born on or after September 1, 2012, or attended a public school during the entire preceding academic year.

The bill would require the comptroller to deposit into the child’s account an amount equal to:

  • 60 percent of the state average maintenance and operations (M&O) expenditure per student in average daily attendance (ADA) in the preceding year, if the child is a member of a household with a total annual income that exceeds 200 percent of the income guidelines necessary to qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program;
  • 75 percent if the child is in a household with a total annual income at or below 200 percent of the stated income guidelines; or
    90 percent if the child has a disability.

In the first year of a child participating in the program, the bill would entitle the school district the child would otherwise attend an amount equal to 50 percent of the difference between the state average M&O expenditure in the preceding year and the amount the child’s parent receives under the program.

Approved expenses would be:

  • tuition and fees at an accredited private school, postsecondary educational institution, or an online educational course or program
  • textbooks or other instructional materials and curriculum
  • fees for classes or other educational services provided by a public school, if the classes or services do not qualify the child to be included in the school’s ADA
  • fees for a private tutor or teaching service
  • fees for educational therapies or services (only for a child with a disability)
  • computer hardware and software and other tech devices (not to exceed 10 percent of the payment for that year)
  • fees for a nationally norm-referenced achievement test or exam, etc.
  • fees for the management of the participant’s account charged by a financial institution

Tax Credit Scholarship Program
SB 3 would also create a tax credit for contributions to a certified education assistance organization that would be used to provide scholarships or educational expense assistance to eligible children. The bill would authorize the comptroller to certify educational assistance organizations that meet certain requirements.

To be eligible to receive a scholarship from an educational assistance organization, a student would be required to:

  • be in foster care;
  • be in institutional care;
  • have a parent who is on active duty in the military; or
  • have a household income not greater than 200 percent of the income guidelines necessary to qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program.

The student must also:

  • have been enrolled in a public school during the preceding year;
  • be starting school in the state for the first time;
  • be a sibling of a student who is eligible; or,
  • if the student attends a nonpublic school, qualify as a student who is not counted toward a public school’s average daily attendance during the year in which the student receives the scholarship or educational expense assistance to attend the school.

The student would also qualify if they were previously eligible. The bill would also allow a student to receive a scholarship if the student is in K-12 and eligible to participate in a school district’s special education program and has an IEP.

The bill would limit the scholarship to no more than 75 percent of the state average M&O expenditure per ADA in the preceding year, or 50 percent of the state average M&O expenditure per ADA in the preceding year if the child is a member of a household with a total annual income that is greater than 175 percent of the income guidelines necessary to qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program and the child is not eligible to participate in the program through a special education program.

Based on a state average M&O expenditure per student in ADA of $9,727 for fiscal year 2015, the most recent year with data available, the awards for students not also participating in the Education Savings Account Program would be: 1) $4,864 for a student whose family income exceeded 175 percent of the income guidelines for the national free or reduced-price lunch program, or 2) $7,295 for a family whose income does not exceed those limits. Since the award for the Education Savings Account Program is higher for anyone whose family income exceeds 175 percent of the income guidelines for the national free or reduced-price lunch program, this analysis assumes the students receiving the scholarships would have a family income that does not exceed 175 percent of the income guidelines for the national free or reduced-price lunch program.

Participation in Both Programs
The maximum scholarship provided to a student who participates in both the Education Savings Account and Tax Credit Scholarship programs may not exceed the difference between the full tuition amount for the student’s nonpublic school and the award under the Education Savings Account Program and a transportation allowance, not to exceed $500. The bill would set the maximum educational expense assistance at $500 per student for fiscal year 2018 and would authorize increases in the amount of 5 percent per year.

Read the full fiscal note on SB 3.

Read the bill as filed.

Testimony at Tuesday’s Hearing
Invited testimony in support of the bill included the following points: voluntary participation in ESA programs in other states has been relatively low (implying a small impact on public schools); states that have adopted such programs have expanded them relatively quickly; such programs provide superior accountability in that they leave it up to parents; a Louisiana program was unsuccessful due to too many state regulations (few high-quality private schools chose to participate).

In response to testimony in support of the bill that said an ESA program would save the state money, Sen. Royce West inquired about the fiscal note on the bill, which notes a cost of $5 million in general revenue and $12 million to the Foundation School Fund in 2018.

Elgin ISD Superintendent Jodi Duron testified against SB 3 on behalf of TASA and the four school districts in Bastrop County (Bastrop, Elgin, Smithville, and McDade ISDs). Duron stated that “school choice” programs claim to save poor children from failing schools in the name of social justice, but they actually discriminate against the poor. She noted the lack of accountability (for both funding and curriculum) in such programs and testified that they actually serve as an entitlement program, allowing families to supplement their income — with no oversight or accountability for educational quality and student outcomes.

Duron also said that such programs are extremely detrimental to students with disabilities, as when these students accept vouchers, they must waive most, if not all, of their federally protected civil rights for a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. She ended her testimony by pointing out that the choice in such programs “ultimately lies with private schools that can cherry pick which students to accept and which to deny.”

With more than 100 people signed up to testify, the hearing (conducted in two parts, before and after the full Senate met) ran more than nine hours.

Access the archived hearing video.

Senate Education Committee to Meet Again Thursday, March 23
The Senate Education Committee has scheduled a meeting for 9 a.m., Thursday, March 23, in E1.028 in the Capitol Extension to consider pending business. Watch the live broadcast.