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Texas School Choice Program Could Cost $2B Annually by 2028

The program also includes more funding for special education, teacher retention, per-student allotments and would revamp virtual education and public school accountability. But it would cost billions to implement.

Texas Republicans’ latest attempt to provide parents with public money to pay for private school comes with a big price tag.

A proposed education savings account program could cost the state more than $2 billion annually by 2028, according to new estimates by the state’s Legislative Budget Board.

Gov. Greg Abbott has demanded lawmakers pass a school choice bill this year, calling them back to Austin for a fourth special session after the House swatted down previous proposals.

Rep. Brad Buckley, the Republican House education committee chairman, told fellow lawmakers during a Thursday hearing that his wide-ranging bill before them was a compromise. It includes voucherlike ESAs as well as more funding for special education, teacher retention and per-student allotments.

To win over skeptics, the ESA provisions of the bill are tucked into the broader proposal. It also would revamp virtual education and public school accountability. Its sweeping nature comes with a hefty cost: $7.6 billion this biennium.

“I’ve been striving to strike the right balance between the viewpoints of those that support parental choice and those that are just as passionate about our public schools,” he said.

A coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans consistently vote against voucherlike policies out of fear they will funnel money out of the public schools that serve the majority of Texas children and into unaccountable private campuses.

Their concerns are echoed within the new fiscal note: It reads that local school districts’ funding “may decrease as a result of the bill due to students leaving public schools to participate in the ESA program.”

Several other provisions in the proposal are supported by public education advocates. However, they resent that they come attached to an ESA program they say could harm public schools.

Huffman ISD Superintendent Benny Soileau urged the committee to detach vouchers from school funding and “allow each to stand on its own merit as separate bills.”

“Unless and until we address the funding needs of our public schools, vouchers should not be the driver for school funding,” said Soileau, whose school district is near Houston.

The current iteration of the ESA proposal could provide around $10,500 a year per student for private school or other education expenses. Homeschooled students could receive $1,000.

Over the current budget cycle, which ends in August 2025, the state would increase the base amount allocated per-student to $6,700. The basic allotment currently sits at $6,160.

Lawmakers haven’t increased that figure since 2019, meaning school districts have felt the squeeze of inflation.

Students would be prioritized for ESA slots based on a variety of factors. Children with disabilities and those from low-income families ranked highest.

Jennifer Allmon, of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, praised the prioritization of poor families. The group has advocated for voucherlike proposals for years.

“The biggest obstacle for parents to choose the best educational environment for their child is income,” she said. “It’s really important to help those with the greatest need.”

The Texas Education Agency estimates about a quarter-million students are enrolled in private schools. These campuses could reasonably accept about 25,000 new students in the 2025 fiscal year, TEA officials project. But that number would grow each year.

Education agency officials believe roughly 42,000 additional students could leave public schools for private ones in 2028.

Agency officials expect half of current private school students and current homeschoolers (more than 500,000 children) would apply for the program and begin participating in it during the 2026-27 biennium. Demand would similarly grow each year, they project.

Rep. James Talarico, a Democrat, said the proposed program would be “a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top.”

“It’s welfare for the wealthy,” he said during the hearing.

Based on those assumptions, the fiscal note expects the cost of an ESA program would be roughly $460 million in 2025, nearly $2 billion in 2026 and $2.3 billion in 2028.

Running the ESA program would also come with costs. The comptroller’s office would oversee much of the administration, including looking out for fraud. Doing so would likely take 11 full-time employees and four attorneys.

The fiscal note estimates it will cost about $2 million for outside counsel, audits and marketing, among other related costs.

Buckley’s bill also would mandate that students benefiting from an ESA take some form of assessment. That would require regional testing centers across the state, according to the analysis. By 2028, it could cost roughly $5 million to administer the assessments.

Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist at Disability Rights of Texas, voiced concerns for families of children with disabilities, saying ESAs or voucher programs could lead to the discrimination or exclusion of such students.

Although some institutions across the state serve students with special needs, private schools in general can deny admission to students. Within public schools, such families are equipped with legal protections.

“It really is the private school that has the choice, not the parent,” Aleman said.

Districts’ costs to provide special education services are also ballooning as the number of students with disabilities in Texas’ public schools rapidly grows, so any available resources directed toward supporting an ESA program “would be a luxury,” he said.

Going into Thursday evening, the Senate was expected to vote on several of its priority bills, including its ESA proposal. The Senate has previously passed versions of such school choice legislation.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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