BY ROBERT DOWNEN/Texas Tribune

A sweeping education bill introduced in the Texas Senate late Friday would allow families to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, establish new opportunities for parents to review instruction material and impose new rules on how gender and sexual orientation is taught in all grades.

If signed into law, Senate Bill 8 would give families up to $8,000 in taxpayer money, per student, to pay for private schooling through an educational savings account, cementing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick‘s signature educational proposal into law.

Patrick’s efforts have been rebuffed before. Rural Republican lawmakers have historically opposed similar legislation, arguing that it siphons off money from public schools, often an anchor of their smaller communities. But this year’s bill carves out smaller districts, leaving school districts with fewer than 20,000 students fully funded for the first two years. Texas schools receive a base allotment of $6,160 per student each year.

Larger districts in urban areas with more private schools would stand to lose state funding, which is calculated by the average student daily attendance.

The savings account provisions are part of the legislation’s broader theme of parental rights — something Republicans have seized since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns temporarily closed schools. In the three years since, conservatives have pushed a variety of changes to the way classrooms are run. Texas has already put perimeters on how topics such as race and slavery is taught.

The legislation puts lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation under a new microscope. It echoes a highly controversial law in Florida. The bill’s language released late Friday says schools are prohibited from teaching such lessons to any grade level that are not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Schools must establish so-called parent portals for families to review instructional material. Parents also would have the right to exempt students from instruction about gender and sexual orientation.

And schools may establish reviews of lessons based on state guidelines to ensure teachers are following the law.

School-choice proponents have routinely cited teaching on sexual orientation and gender as a key justification for pulling their kids — and tax dollars — from public schools. The new bill would allow them to do so while also banning such teachings.

Parents also would need to be notified of any changes to their child’s mental, emotional or physical health.

An accompanying piece of legislation, Senate Bill 9, would also give “across the board” pay raises to teachers; increase funding for classrooms; establish and fund mentor and teacher residency programs; and give free pre-K education for the children of classroom teachers in districts where it is provided, according to the news release from the bill’s author.

In a statement, the bills’ author, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, framed the legislation as a compromise between “parents, educators, employers and students.”

“Educating the next generation of Texans is the most fundamental responsibility we have, and I authored Senate Bill 8 to place parents, not government, squarely in the center of the decisions for their children,” he said. “Giving parents the power to determine the best school for their child will encourage competition and innovation, ensuring that each Texas student has the opportunity to succeed.”

On Friday, Creighton also requested an expedited opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on whether his bill, specifically its educational savings accounts provision, would run afoul of the Texas Constitution because it would divert public funds to private religious schools. Citing recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Creighton questioned whether the related Texas constitutional provisions, known as the Blain Amendments, were “likewise unconstitutional.” And, earlier this week, state Sen. Angela Paxton — who is married to the attorney general — filed legislation that would repeal “the constitutional provision that prohibits the appropriation of state money or property for the benefit of any sect, religious society, or theological or religious seminary.”

Catholic leaders said Friday that Creighton’s bill introduced important questions about religious freedom, specifically as related to the Blain Amendments that they said have roots in anti-Catholic bigotry.

“In general, it’s a good bill and a good start,” said Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. “This is a good way to begin the conversation.”

Public education leaders meanwhile decried the bill: “School vouchers, no matter what they are called, divert scarce public education funds to private schools and vendors which are not required to comply with federal protections for students with disabilities or report and track spending and student performance,” said Michelle Smith, executive director of Raise Your Hand Texas.

Both Patrick, who presides over the state Senate, and Gov. Greg Abbott have made “school choice” a priority this session, with the latter naming it an emergency item for this legislative session and calling on lawmakers to enact education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would give parents who remove their children from the public education system state money to pay for educational expenses, like private school tuition, online schooling or private tutors.

Abbott has appeared at several private schools across the state advocating for education savings accounts.

“That will give all parents the ability to choose the best education option for their child,” he said during a parental rights event in Corpus Christi last month, where he announced his support for such a program. “The bottom line is this: This is really about freedom.”

Despite Patrick and Abbott supporting taxpayer-funded private school scholarships, portions of the bill’s future are precarious. House Democrats and their rural Republican peers have historically blocked legislation that would siphon any money away from rural schools. It is unclear whether the extra funding for rural schools in the bill would be enough to win support in the lower chamber this year. Under the bill, a school district with fewer than 20,000 students would receive $10,000 each year, for the first two years, for each student that uses education savings accounts.

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