Texas Lawmaker to Revive Bill Establishing Education Savings Accounts

Published August 9, 2016

Texas state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) vows to continue pushing his state to create an education savings account (ESA) program.

Huffines introduced Senate Bill 1178 in March 2015 to direct the Texas Education Agency “to conduct a study on implementing an education savings account (ESA) program” in the state. SB 1178 passed in the Senate but was defeated in the House earlier in 2016.

Huffines told School Reform News it’s likely he will introduce a bill similar to SB 1178 in next year’s legislative session, and he says an increasing number of Texas voters are interested in the creation of ESAs.

An ESA program allows parents to apply to remove their child from the local public school. The state then uses the money allocated to the child for public schooling to fund an account parents can use to pay for approved education services. Parents can use the money to pay for private school tuition or a tutor, purchase curriculum for homeschooling or a digital learning class, or save some of the funds to help pay for college tuition.

Five states already have ESA programs, with varying limits on eligible participants and uses. Arizona created the first program in 2011; Florida was next in 2014; and Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee followed in 2015.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in May the state’s current education finance system is constitutional after a coalition of districts challenged it. The coaltion alleged wealthier districts are taking tax revenue from poorer ones. Justice Don R. Willett wrote in his decision, “We hope lawmakers will seize this urgent challenge and upend an ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas.”

Huffines responded with a coauthored op-ed in the Dallas Morning News in June, in which he wrote, “The court is right. Now, the Legislature must give parents and students education choice by passing a universal education savings account program that will give parents the power to customize their children’s education.”

‘Give Kids an Option’

Huffines says it’s important to empower parents and students to craft the kind of educational experience best suited for their needs.

“If public schools don’t work, it’s important to give the kids an option,” Huffines said. “One size doesn’t fit all, so parents and students need to be empowered with the most comprehensive school choice plan possible. Nevada has passed the most comprehensive school choice plan so far. We are studying what they’ve done to apply ESAs in Texas.

“The current system is a government monopoly,” Huffines said. “Monopolies are bad, but government monopolies are the worst monopolies. ESAs have proven in numerous studies to improve public schools and outcomes across the board. ESAs raise the bar for competition among our public schools, and competition always lowers costs and improves quality. My goal is to improve the public education system, and I think we can with ESAs.”

Overcoming Opposition

Huffines disagrees with the oft-quoted view ESAs deplete traditional public schools of their resources.

“We anticipate 80 percent of all students will always attend public schools, but ESAs are going to be just one tool in the toolbox to ensure all children get a good education,” Huffines said.

John D. Colyandro, executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, says getting an ESA bill passed won’t be easy.

“If education is truly about the children, then there should be no opposition to ESAs, but there will be,” Colyandro said. “The public can best engage by strenuously alerting school boards, administrators, and teachers that parents are in charge of their child’s future and taxpayers deserve more for their investment in education.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.