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March 26, 2015
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Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt's plan would allow businesses to write off donations made to K-12 scholarship programs.

(AUSTIN) — The Senate Education Committee explored two approaches to using government revenue to pay for private schools at a Thursday hearing. The issue of school choice has been promoted by some in the Legislature as a means for improving education and helping to get children out of failing schools. The mechanism for giving tax dollars earmarked for public education back to parents to help pay for private school tuition is a controversial one, but advocates say that parents are best equipped to choose where their children get an education.

The first bill laid out before the committee, SB 276 by New Braunfels Senator Donna Campbell, would directly transfer tax revenue to parents. It would allow parents to receive a grant of 60 percent of the cost of educating a student at a public school, which is about $5200, and apply that toward tuition at a private or parochial school. The rest of the money would go back into general revenue, rather than a fund dedicated to public education. In order to qualify for the grant, a student must have been in public school for at least one year or about to enter kindergarten. Students who are currently in private schools or are homeschooled would not be eligible. Campbell said she believes that parents should be the ultimate authority when it comes to choosing the education for their children. "SB 276 is a bill that is a win for parents, it's a win for our economy and it's a win for every child," she said.

The second measure is a more indirect shifting of state funds. SB 642, by Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt, would capture money before it is ever collected as taxes by allowing businesses to deduct donations made to non-profit scholarship organizations from their total tax liability. They would be allowed to write off up to 50 percent of their total tax burden through these donations. Unlike Campbell's plan, Bettencourt's bill includes a means test that would favor low- and middle-income families. Families that make up to 225 percent of the Free and Reduced Lunch threshold, or about $80,000 per year, could apply for these scholarships. Poorer families would get more money, up to 75 percent of the daily cost of educating a child in a public school. The program is designed as a pilot program, and would cap at $100 million in scholarships, which would be enough to cover about 20,000 students. Bettencourt pointed out that similar programs have worked successfully in 14 other states.

Some on the committee raised concerns about the proposals. Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger worried that while money spent on public education has government oversight, money sent to a private school doesn't. "On this body of money we're going to have no accountability whatsoever ," he said of SB 276. "That's a problem". Others questioned the wisdom of pulling money out of public schools when they see serious funding needs, and that current intra- and inter-district school choice programs already in law aren't being paid for. "The question is should we adequately fund those programs," said Senator Royce West of Dallas.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick appeared before the committee to promote the school choice measures. He argued that school choice already exists in Texas for people who have enough money. "For a large number of our families, they don't have the money for private school, and they don't have the mobility to move to the suburbs because they take a bus to work," said Patrick. These families should have options to find a good school for their children, he said. Patrick added that while the vast majority of students will always use the public school system, a potential school choice program would be for the benefit of low income families whose children are trapped in failing public schools or for children whose needs aren't being met by their local school.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 30 at 2 p.m.

Session video and all other Senate webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's Audio/Video Archive.