Texas Senate committee approves controversial special education voucher bill
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Date Posted: 4/22/2021 | Author: Mark Wiggins
The Senate Education Committee met Thursday, April 22, to consider a round of bills that included one seeking to provide districts more flexibility in determining whether to participate in TRS-ActiveCare. The committee also took votes on several pending bills.
Most notably, the committee voted to approve a committee substitute version of Senate Bill (SB) 1716 by Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), which provides for a special education voucher program. The bill would make permanent Gov. Greg Abbott’s special education voucher program created last year using federal emergency coronavirus relief funds. ATPE joined special education advocates in opposing SB 1716 when it was heard by the committee Tuesday.
SB 1716 is strikingly similar to “education savings account” voucher models that have been consistently rejected by the Texas Legislature in prior legislative sessions. Special education advocates who testified against the bill Tuesday explained that scarce public funding must be prioritized for use in the public school system, ensuring that all special education students receive the services they are entitled to receive under the law free of charge.
Very surprisingly, the committee ignored the opposition to SB 1716 and voted unanimously to advance it to the full Senate. The committee also recommended that the bill be placed on the Senate’s local and uncontested calendar.
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony Thursday on SB 1444 by Chairman Taylor, which would allow a school district or risk pool to opt in or out of TRS-ActiveCare, however their choice would be locked in for a minimum period of five years. Taylor presented a committee substitute that satisfied concerns over the original bill as filed. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of the new language, pointing out that it removes a loophole for Districts of Innovation (DOI) that had enabled them to claim exemptions from laws relating to health insurance.
The committee also heard testimony Thursday on the following bills:
- SB 168 by Sen. Cesar Blanco (D-El Paso), which would require districts and charter schools to adopt a policy on active shooter drills before conducting one. Each policy must prohibit realistic simulations and surprise simulations. ATPE supports this bill.
- SB 194 by Sen. Beverly Powell (D-Burleson), which would add completion of a CTE program as a positive factor under the accountability system. ATPE supports this bill.
- SB 348 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), which would entitle a parent to observe any virtual instruction and review any teaching materials, instructional materials, or other teaching aids provided to their child for virtual or remote learning. Existing law already entitles a parent to review teaching materials, and this bill clarifies that the law also covers virtual instruction.
- SB 534 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which would provide immunity from liability for any reasonable action taken a school resource officer or school marshal involving a firearm. These officers are immune under existing statutes, but this legislation would add further specificity to the law.
- SB 1082 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), which would specifically include curriculum materials used in any human sexuality instruction under the statute entitling a parent to review teaching materials. The bill would eliminate any implied discretion under existing statutes and treat this curriculum the same as any other.
- SB 1526 by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), which would apply student data security protocols and standards to vendors used by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and education service centers (ESCs). National assessment providers would be exempt under certain circumstances.
- SB 1527 by Sen. Perry, which would establish a rural schools and communities technical assistance center to assist small and rural school districts with implementation and expansion of the Collegiate Edu-Nation P-20 System Model for 21st Century School Transformation in cooperation with TEA, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), and the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). The bill also aims to facilitate the expansion of broadband development in rural communities.
The committee also voted Thursday to approve the following bills:
- SB 215 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), which would create an office of inspector general appointed by the education commissioner and tasked with investigating "wrongdoing, waste, fraud, and abuse" by school districts, charters, or other local education agencies. The bill was recommended for placement on the local calendar.
- SB 879 by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), which would change the qualifications for being designated a dropout recovery school. The bill was recommended for the local calendar.
- SB 1277 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), which would amend the dual credit statute to require the participating school district or higher education institution to designate at least one employee responsible for providing academic advising to enrolled students before they begin a dual credit course. The bill was recommended for the local calendar.
- SB 1351 by Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston), which would allow the donation of food by public school campuses. ATPE supports the bill, which was recommended for the local calendar.
- SB 1365 by Sen. Bettencourt, which is aimed ostensibly at addressing issues in Houston ISD but would drastically expand the authority of the commissioner of education throughout the state. ATPE opposed this bill, which passed with six members in support, one opposed, and two not voting. Sen. Menendez opposed the bill, while Sens. Lucio and West registered a position of “present not voting.”
- SB 1590 by Sen. Bettencourt, which would allow virtual observations to replace in-person observations required of educator candidates. Sen. Menendez voted against the bill, which ATPE also opposed.
- SB 1776 by Sen. Campbell, which would require each high school to provide an elective course on the founding principles of the United States and allow public posting of the Declaration of Independence and other American founding documents in school buildings. The bill was recommended for placement on the local calendar.
- SB 1955 (committee substitute) by Chairman Taylor, which would allow parents to organize learning pods to home-school their children together. This bill was recommended for placement on the local calendar.
- SB 2026 (committee substitute) by Chairman Taylor, which would add informed patriotism to the educational objectives for public schools laid out in the Texas Education Code.
- SB 2044 by Sen. Menendez, which would establish a State Advisory Council on Educational Opportunity for Military Children.
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