AUSTIN (Nexstar) — After passing a separate omnibus bill to boost teacher salaries and public school education funding, a Texas Senate committee unveiled legislation Tuesday that would create a program for private school subsidies.

Senate Bill 1 would allocate $500 million toward the creation of an education savings account program, which was the primary education policy request on Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for this third special session.

The funding comes from Texas’ general revenue and would be available for eligible pre-K through 12 school-aged children. Families of eligible students would receive $8,000 each year that they are enrolled in the program in an account. In order to qualify, they must have attended public school within the last year or are about to enter pre-K or kindergarten for the first time.

Opponents have expressed concern that creating such a program will take away funding from public schools, which are accountable to the legislature. The bill’s author, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said he believes that the packages would work in tandem, not against one another.

“There can be harmony between lifting up our public schools like never before, our public school teachers like never before,” he said. “And also making sure that moms and dads across this state, if they don’t find what they need and they need other options, that they have a chance to apply to a program that will give them those options.”

During the hearing, Democratic senators questioned the guardrails in SB 1 for accountability and transparency. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, expressed concern that such a program would lead to the re-segregation of schools, asking Creighton to add provisions that track the demographics of students who might enroll in the program if it becomes law.

“In this particular structure, there’s no transparency, and I’m just trying to understand why there’s no transparency,” West said. “Why don’t we want to find out who’s taking advantage of this particular program, as opposed to just an amorphous category of that you’ve established?”

What’s in the bill?

Parents and guardians can use the ESA funds for the following education-related expenses incurred by a child participating in the program:

  • Tuition and fees for a private school
  • Purchase of textbooks and other instructional materials for a required course
  • Uniforms required by a school
  • Costs related to academic assessments
  • Fees for a private tutor or teaching service
  • Fees for transportation;
  • Fees for educational therapies or services provided by a practitioner or provider
  • Private schools must be accredited to participate

While outlining the bill in the Senate Education Committee hearing Tuesday morning, Creighton noted the state would prioritize which eligible students can receive the ESA funding if there are more applicants than available spots within the program. In that case, Texas would prioritize awarding funds to families in this order:

  • 1) 40% of the available positions would go to students who currently qualify for free or reduced lunch .
  • 2) 30% of the available positions for students whose parents earn between 185% and 500% of the federal poverty line.
  • 3) 20% of the available positions will be prioritized for students with a disability.
  • 4) 10% of the remaining available positions are available to students who attended public, private or homeschool to gain access to the ESA program.

On Monday, the Senate moved swiftly to advance its school finance package, allocating $5.2 billion in additional school funding in Senate Bill 2. That package includes $400 million for school safety, doubling the minimal funding that came with the legislature’s sweeping school safety bill passed in the regular session.

Conflicting views on creating voucher-like program

Top Republicans have stressed the importance of passing school funding in tandem with an education savings account program — but Democrats appeared in a united front Monday, saying they will universally oppose any form of ESAs due to their belief that it takes away from the needs of public schools and its students.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, told Nexstar his caucus would not support a deal to pass a school voucher program along with teacher pay, saying, “No vouchers, no deals.”

“The divisive rhetoric and the narratives that are always created that pit one against the other, they’re not only destructive, they’re unfounded. And there can be harmony between all of these efforts together,” Creighton said.

House leaders have also supported a teacher pay raise and school funding boost, but have been slower to act without an explicit call from Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor alone can set the agenda for the special session, and he has not yet asked for any public school funding measures.

Ryan Chandler contributed to this story. Capitol Correspondent Monica Madden will have a full report on KXAN at 6 p.m.