FOURTH SPECIAL ENDS WITHOUT SCHOOL CHOICE LEGISLATION
(AUSTIN) — The fourth special session of the 88th Legislature ended Tuesday with no bill on school choice, Governor Greg Abbott’s top legislative priority for the year. There was no progress towards a deal after the House stripped education savings accounts from a major school finance bill in mid-November. This was the third time that the House has declined to advance school choice legislation this year, with members voting 84-63 to remove such provisions from a major school finance bill. Governor Greg Abbott has said that he will not accept any legislation that doesn’t include robust school choice provisions and with ESAs out of the bill, House authors decided against advancing the bill any further, sending it back to committee, where it died.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick closes out the current special session, after a year that saw members work through a regular session, four called sessions, and an impeachment trial.
The Senate has passed legislation creating education savings accounts in the regular session and in each of the previous two called sessions. The Senate proposal, SB 2 by Conroe Senator and Education Committee Chair Brandon Creighton, would’ve spent $500 million to create sixty-two thousand, five hundred savings accounts worth $8,000 each. Parents who were approved would have been able to use those funds for non-public education services, like private school tuition, fees, or tutoring. The bill also included an additional $5.2 billion for increases in school funding and teacher pay.
In a statement issued following adjournment, the governor vowed to continue to fight for school choice, though he stopped short of announcing further sessions. “The fight for school choice for all Texas families will continue until it’s won,” it read. “The Governor will continue to work with Texas legislators and at the ballot box to get school choice of all Texas families.” While it’s not yet clear if Abbott has plans for a fifth special session on school choice next year, he has begun endorsing electoral primary challenges of some House members who voted to strip ESAs out of the finance bill. Those elections are held in early March of 2024.
School safety funding also failed to pass as the two chambers couldn’t come to an agreement on how to fund the increased campus security measures required under legislation passed in the regular session. The Senate’s proposal would’ve added $800 million in funding: $400 million for a grant program to help schools pay for newly required armed personnel and $400 million to increase the amount of direct funds each district receives to cover security costs. The House proposal called for the use of up to $1.1 billion of rainy day fund money into a new fund dedicated to school safety spending. Author and Finance Chair Senator Joan Huffman said that the Senate’s proposal would get money to school districts faster as the House proposal would require a vote from the public to become law.
The governor did win passage of his border security agenda in the form of increased funding and a new law that would allow state peace officers to arrest migrants they see entering into the country illegally. A dispute over what to do with individuals post arrest killed the proposal last session, but both chambers were on the same page this time, approving a compromise and filing identical bills in each body on the first day of the fourth special. That bill, and another that would spend $1.5 billion to build permanent border walls on the Texas/Mexico border, have been sent to the governor and await his signature.