AUSTIN (KXAN) – 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.”