Education Savings Accounts draw support, concern

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Just four days after the Texas House voted to prohibit state funding for education savings accounts, the House Committee on Public Education considered a bill to establish just that.

House Bill 4340, by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, is the lower chamber’s proposal to use state dollars to subsidize educational costs for families looking for alternatives to public education.

“The entire discussion around school choice… comes down to perspective in my opinion. Should parents be given options to educate their children?” Frank said to the committee on Tuesday. “When viewed through the eyes of the parent or child, I believe it’s hard to come to any other answer than ‘yes.’”

Frank’s bill would establish education savings accounts (ESAs), just like Texas Sen. Brandon Creighton’s Senate Bill 8, but with some key differences.

HB 4340 would prioritize families who would qualify for the ESAs into four tiers based on income level. The first priority group includes students who qualify for reduced-price meals. Rep. Frank said that includes families of four making up to $55,500 per year.

The second priority group includes families whose income is twice that. The third group is special needs students who do not already qualify under the first two tiers. The fourth priority group is all other students, who would be eligible to receive half of the total ESA value.

“There are a lot of people working very hard to get their kids in private schools, a lot of people skipping vacations, working hard,” Frank said. “We want to give those people help. But we also don’t want to basically pay for the whole thing.”

The bill allocates about $10,300 per ESA, an amount equal to 90% of the state average maintenance and operations tax revenue per student in average daily public school attendance. That’s nearly 30% more than the Senate’s version, which funds each ESA with $8,000.

While the Senate’s bill would not include students currently in private school, Frank’s bill would allow those students to qualify for half of the money.

“It’s unlikely there would be money there,” Frank said, clarifying there is unlikely to be money left over by the time the fourth priority group would qualify.

While the bulk of the debate over education savings accounts has been focused on public money going to private schools, the money could apply to a variety of educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks, uniforms, transportation, and tutoring.

More than 900 people signed up to speak at Tuesday’s committee hearing. After more than 10 hours of testimony, the committee left the bill pending.

The bill faces steep opposition in the House. Even if the bill passes out of committee, it is at least two dozen votes short of passing through the full House. Last week, the House voted 86-52 to block funding for the core tenant of the bill. Passage would require at least 76 members to support education savings accounts.

Supporters of the measure, however, frame that vote as positive progress towards their cause.

“We creamed them. This a major victory. It was huge. It was such an exciting day,” the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Mandy Drogin said. “The momentum behind education freedom is real and it’s not going to stop. Parents are not going to start demanding what is rightfully ours.”

Last session, a similar prohibition of education savings accounts received 115 votes.

Opponents, too, are not ceasing their advocacy in light of the vote.

“We know that what’s best for those students is public schools and fully funded public schools, which is what we need to be advocating for,” Political Director for Texas Freedom Network Carisa Lopez said. “We need to be investing in our public schools instead of diverting those dollars to private voucher schemes.”

While legislation is still pending in the Texas House, the state Senate has already approved a plan to let some parents direct state dollars toward private school tuition and other services, like tutoring. School leaders across the state have been speaking up about possible ripple effects for public schools.

In rural Guadalupe County — more than an hour from the Texas Capitol —Seguin Independent School District Superintendent Matthew Gutiérrez returned from visiting one of his campuses.

He described one classroom where 10 small groups of students were working with paraprofessionals and intervention teachers. 

The entire set-up was possible, he said, because of federal dollars allocated to districts during the pandemic. It’s money that will be fully spent soon.

“That’s what we need,” Gutiérrez said. “Our students have significant needs, especially in high-poverty school districts like Seguin ISD, and to think that it is possible that our funding could be reduced … that is going to be detrimental for us.”

Dr. Gutiérrez and other superintendents, like the head of Pflugerville Independent School District, have been very vocal leading up to critical votes in the Texas legislature.

God bless this bipartisan group of #txlege Reps. who supported public $ going to public schools. It’s time to give #txed the attention & dollars that’s deserved. Seguin ISD welcomes our Governor or any legislators to come see the great things happening in a public school!

Tweet from Seguin ISD Superintendent Matthew Gutiérrez

When the Texas House voted 86-52 to block any state money from funding school-voucher programs that would help cover private school tuition for families, he tweeted “God bless this bipartisan group of #txlege Reps. who supported public [money] going to public schools.”

At the same time, the Senate was passing Senate Bill 8 which would create education savings accounts for parents to use toward private school tuition, tutoring or additional curriculum for home-schooled students.

The time is NOW for school choice in Texas. School choice legislation has passed the Texas Senate and is moving through the House this week. Parents MUST have the freedom to choose the best education path for their child.

Tweet from Gov. Greg Abbott

Public school districts are funded in Texas based on attendance and enrollment. While the proposed bill would not use the same pot of money used to fund public schools, it could mean less funding for a school district if they lost students to private schools.

“I feel like there are efforts right now to dismantle public education in a variety of ways,” Gutiérrez said. “Education spending accounts, which would fund private schools – private schools that would be immune from the accountability that exists in public schools.”

Right now, in Texas, private schools don’t have to hold public meetings for parents. They aren’t required to provide certain public records on their operations or finances.

The Texas Education Agency said it does not keep any data or evaluations on private schools in the state. Private schools are not required to accept all students, including students with disabilities.

The institutions are also not required to participate in the state standardized testing, or the STAAR. Only 17 private schools voluntarily offered the exam to their students in the spring of 2022, according to TEA records.

STAAR test results are counted in ratings of public school districts, including Houston Independent School District which will soon have its school board and superintendent replaced due to repeated failing state scores.

Under Senate Bill 8, private schools participating in the Education Savings Account program would have to have their curriculum approved by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts – which is primarily tasked with collecting state tax revenue.

The bill does not require private institutions to comply with the same rules and regulations as public schools.

“There’s an effort to take away funding from us, where we educate all students, no matter where they come from, and to take that funding to a private school that is exempt from all of those requirements,” Gutiérrez said. “That is absolutely unfair.”

But school voucher supporters like the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, which operates 250 private Catholic Schools across Texas, said the education savings program would not harm public schools.

The conference told lawmakers it expects 90% of its Catholic schools will accept students with Education Savings Accounts and estimates it will have the capacity to add around 20,000 students if the bill becomes law.

“Most students will continue to benefit from a public education because of the many advantages in our public schools, including sports and extracurricular activities that are attractive to families,” TCCB Executive Director Jennifer Allmon told lawmakers in late March.

“This is not a zero-sum game where private schools win and public schools lose. It is a win-win for communities when all children can flourish in the educational setting best suited for them,” she continued.

While the Texas Education Agency does not collect data or evaluations on private institutions, the schools do report to their respective accreditation bodies.

“All schools should be held accountable for a high academic standard. Our accreditation process handles oversight in a responsible way,” Allmon said. “Accreditation requires that the curricula used in private schools be equivalent or have greater rigor to that in public schools.  But there is flexibility in the choice of that curriculum.”

Senate Bill 8, in its current form, would also give back up to $10,000 to public schools for every student that transfers out with the help of education savings accounts. But that provision only applies to small, rural school districts like Seguin ISD.

The money would only go to the school district in the two years following the transfer of a student.

“The dollars are for only two years, leaving the district to lose out on many years of funding. There is only a short-term benefit,” Gutiérrez said.

“We need to think about how we need to fund the system more equitably, too, and how we need to increase the per pupil allotment,” he added. “So that, one, we can keep up with inflation, we can raise teacher salaries, we can ensure that we have the staff to narrow the gap that was — that existed prior to COVID but has widened.”

Bills aim to improve access to mental health care

Senators on Thursday passed a bill that aims to improve mental health care in rural communities. Senate Bill 26 is one of several bills with the goal of making sure more Texans have access to care.

“Any time we invest in mental health care in our population, we are making an investment for our future,” Dr. Steve Bain said. Bain leads the Institute for Rural Mental Health Initiatives at Texas A&M in Kingsville.

Lawmakers have proposed investing close to $3 billion into the state’s mental health care system. The funding will go toward building new facilities, as well as improving existing ones.

“It takes years sometimes to build a hospital… but you have to start,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said at a news conference about SB 26. “This is a big step, but this should be ongoing because our population continues to grow.”

Dr. Bain’s research points to another problem: finding workers to provide the mental health care needed in Texas. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) pointed to legislation to create a loan repayment and grant program for nurses. She also noted plans to improve pay.

“There’s a pay raise for our state supportive living centers and our state hospitals, and it’s 39.73%, Kolkhorst said.

Another measure would outline new procedures for local mental health authorities when it comes to patients who have been discharged, in order to ensure each person continues to get the care they need once they’re back in the community.

The plans being discussed now will take shape over several years.

“A perfect plan, maybe not yet,” Kolkhorst said. “But I can tell you it’s a plan, and it’s a way forward.”

House vote on tax relief sets up showdown with Senate

The stage is set for a showdown at the Capitol over tax cuts.

It comes after Texas House members approved their plan for property tax relief. It includes a plan to tighten the state’s cap on home appraisals. Right now, the state puts a 10 percent limit on how much a home’s taxable value can rise each year. The House plan aims to control tax bills by cutting that cap to 5 percent.

In recent years, many Texans have seen their property tax rates drop, but still ended up paying significantly higher bills because rising property values tended to outpace cuts in the tax rate.

“We want to have the caps, so there’s predictability and stability for our property owners,” State Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) said while speaking on the House floor before the vote on HB 2. The bill passed with a 139 – 5 vote.

The House bill goes beyond homesteads and would lower the cap on appraisal increases for commercial property as well.

The Senate took a different approach in its plan, which passed with support from all 31 State Senators.

The Senate’s plan would give tax relief by raising the state’s homestead exemption. That’s the amount of a home’s value that’s exempt from property taxes. Right now the exemption is $40,000. The Senate plan would raise it to $70,000.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says the House plan doesn’t do enough to help many Texans, including senior citizens. At a news conference Thursday he told reporters that the House plan won’t get through the Senate.

“If they send the bill over, we’re not going to do appraisal caps, period, end of story,” Patrick said.

“It’s just the math, and the math doesn’t work with appraisal caps,” Patrick added. “They mean nothing to seniors, nothing essentially to any homeowner in the state.”

Patrick pointed to tax reform measures passed by the legislature in 2019 that he said make appraisal increases less relevant. The changes require local governments to get voter approval if tax revenue grows more than 3.5 percent from the previous year. Previously that revenue cap was 8 percent.

Dale Craymer, President of the Texas Taxpayer and Research Association said the change is having an impact.

“When your appraisals grow, your school districts, your cities, and your counties have to cut their tax rates. So your appraisal can’t drive your tax bill up anymore the way it had done historically,” Craymer said.

During the hearings on HB 2, Craymer spoke on the bill, meaning TTARA did not take a position for or against the proposal. Craymer said TTARA did register in support of the Senate bill during hearings on that legislation. He noted benefits from both approaches.

“The Senate plan probably is a little better for homeowners, and especially homeowners over the age of 65. The House plan has similar benefits, but the appraisal cap, extending that to all real property is going to benefit some businesses and homeowners who have properties that are rising in value very rapidly.”

Fentanyl testing strip legalization overwhelmingly approved by Texas House

The Texas House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to legalize fentanyl testing strips. The bill will now head to the Senate.

The test strips cost roughly a dollar and can be used to test drugs, powders and pills for the presence of fentanyl, which is significantly more powerful than other drugs and can be fatal. But under the Texas Controlled Substances Act, drug testing equipment is classified as drug paraphernalia, which currently makes it illegal for people to recreationally test.

“The people who sell fake pills containing narcotics aren’t attempting to sell a product that kills their consumers,” said Rick Cofer, an Austin criminal defense lawyer who has represented Texans who have been charged with possession or distribution of fentanyl.

“Those who are arrested should be prosecuted vigorously and defended vigorously so that the system is fair, but empowering all Texans to test any pills that they may happen to purchase for the presence of fentanyl is going to save lives.”

House Bill 362, authored by Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Harris County), passed through the House on its final reading with 143 yes votes and only two representatives voting no. Gov. Greg Abbott has already indicated he would sign the bill into law if it made its way to his desk.

“It restores my faith in the democratic process that Democrats and Republicans can come together and can find common ground on a common sense issue like this. If we don’t pass this bill, Texans will die needlessly,” Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin), a joint author of the bill, said.

Previously, Republican lawmakers have questioned the legalization of the strips, expressing concern they might encourage drug use. Abbott has since said he believes the strips should be legalized.

“So that people will be able to test drugs at home to know whether or not it might be laced with fentanyl,” Abbott said after visiting with University of Houston researchers who have developed a fentanyl vaccine.

The bill now moves to the Senate. Several similar or identical bills were filed there, indicating likely support there too.

“We’ve had great conversations, bipartisan conversations and bicameral conversations — so in both chambers of the legislature — and we think there’s broad support for this common-sense policy that can save people’s lives,” Talarico said.

If signed into law, the bill would legalize having, passing out and making the strips. Travis County Judge Andy Brown said if those strips are legalized, he’ll immediately start working to get them in the hands of the right people.

“I’m going to do everything I can to help distribute fentanyl strips if they are legal and continue to help distribute and purchase Narcan to stop overdoses when they’re happening,” Brown said.

Drug overdoses were the leading cause of accidental death in Travis County in 2021 for the first time in a decade. In the first six months of 2022, there were 118 fentanyl-related overdose deaths, meaning someone died of an overdose and had fentanyl in their system. It’s the exact same number Travis County saw in all 12 months of 2021.

Brown said the full medical examiners report for 2022 is expected to be released before the end of the month and is likely to show the trend continuing.

“Everything I’m hearing is that we have not solved this crisis yet and that people are still dying in increasing numbers from opioid-related deaths, and especially fentanyl deaths,” Brown said.

Bill aims to cut prescription costs by allowing imports from Canada

A bipartisan bill could cut the cost of drugs Texans get from the pharmacy, by bringing them in from north of the border.

Lawmakers approved House Bill 25 on Wednesday. The legislation would allow the import of prescription drugs from Canada. Drug costs there can be significantly lower than in the United States.

“I am totally pro-business. But I am pro-free enterprise and for a functioning market. This is not a functioning market,” State Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) said at a news conference for HB 25. Frank is one of the authors of the legislation.

Pharmaceutical groups have raised concerns about the safety of importing drugs. Opponents also say that supporters are overstating potential savings from the plan. The bill includes requirements for testing by the Food and Drug Administration, which could create new costs that cut into projected savings.

The fiscal note for the bill mentions that it’s difficult to calculate the potential cost benefit from imported prescriptions.

State Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin), the lead author, cited the need to cut cost for patients as a reason for the bipartisan bill.

“Texans are having to choose between their medications and their rent. They’re having to choose between their medications and their groceries. We can fix that with this bill,” Talarico said.

The bill will now head to the Senate, where State Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) plans to help push the bill through.

Texas lawmakers actually passed similar legislation back in 2005. Senate Bill 410, a wide-ranging bill regarding the functions of the State Board of Pharmacy, included a requirement to create a program to import prescription drugs from Canada.

Before the law could take effect, the FDA told the state that the plan violated federal law. Greg Abbott was the Texas Attorney General at the time. He issued an opinion agreeing with the FDA and the Texas law never took effect.

The federal landscape has changed in recent years. In 2020, President Donald Trump encouraged states and the federal government to bring in lower-priced drugs from Canada. When President Joe Biden took office, he ordered the FDA to work with states that wanted to develop import programs.