Published 4:09 pm Friday, March 31, 2017

The Senate passed on Thursday a narrowed version of the bill intended to let some families use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The version that passed out of the Senate Education Committee would’ve allowed any family to access the program to receive a portion of the yearly cost to educate their children in a public school. The measure that finally passed Thursday would only be open to families that demonstrate financial need or have a child with a disability. Bill author and Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor believes his bill will open opportunities for students for whom traditional public school hasn’t worked. “Because that’s what this is all about, allowing parents and students based on their own individual needs,” he said.

To be eligible for the funds, called education savings accounts, a family must make less than 175 percent of the federal threshold to qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, which is about $75,000 annually for a family of four. Any family with a child who has a disability can qualify for the accounts regardless of income.   It costs the state a little more than $9000 per year on average to educate a child in a public school. Families below the 175 percent threshold that use the program could receive 75 percent of that cost and families with a child with a disability could get 90 percent. That money could go to pay tuition at a private or parochial school that is accredited by the main private school accreditation organization in the state.  Taylor told members he estimates that between 35 and 70 thousand school children will access the education savings accounts, based on rates in other states with school choice programs.

The bill also creates tuition credit scholarships, where private companies could donate money to a fund to create private tuition scholarships in exchange for a tax break.  The fund is capped at $25 million. A family with a child with a disability could apply for and receive both an ESA and a TCS, meaning they could get up to $16,000 per year for private school tuition.

Because the amount a public school receives in funding is dependent on their average daily attendance, the bill includes provisions to lessen any impact from students leaving. Taylor said these schools would receive 12.5 percent of the annual education cost per child for any students lost to private schools for the first year.   Because the money for the program will come out of general revenue rather than the dedicated public education fund, Taylor believes that his program won’t harm public education, and in fact will benefit schools who are receiving additional money for students they don’t have to educate.  He says the state will benefit too. “We’re actually going to free up money that we can put back into education through this process,” he told colleagues.  Taylor says the bill is projected to save the state $9 million in 2020, rising to $55 million in 2022 as the number of student participants increases. The original bill would’ve allowed students in any county to access the program, but the bill passed Thursday is limited to the 17 most populous counties in the state, which account for about two-thirds of state population.

The bill passed on a vote of 18-13 and will now head to the House for consideration.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 3 at 2 p.m.