A bill recently introduced in the Texas Legislature that has drawn support from the governor would create a publicly-funded education savings account (ESA) for students wishing to attend private schools, a move that the state’s Catholic bishops have urged the faithful to support.

Gov. Greg Abbott said in a Tuesday proclamation that he had reached an agreement with Texas House leadership on the school choice bill as part of a special session that he called in October, with the aim to create a $10,400 per year ESA for participating students.

“The legislation will create an Education Savings Accounts program with universal eligibility for all Texas schoolchildren and will be entirely voluntary for families and schools to participate,” Abbott, a Republican and a Catholic, said Oct. 31.

He also said the agreement includes “billions more in funding for Texas public schools" over two years, including teacher pay raises and school safety upgrades.

“This is the next step in the legislative process to deliver school choice to Texas parents and students who deserve the freedom to choose the education that best fits their learning needs. I look forward to working with both chambers of the Texas Legislature on getting this legislation to my desk to sign into law,” Abbott said.

The bill in question, HB 1, would allow parents to receive some of their tax dollars back — in the latest version of the bill, the equivalent of 75% of the cost of sending the student to public school — to help pay for the educational institution of their choice.

Catholic bishops in the state had expressed support for earlier efforts in the state Legislature to enact school choice.

“We are hopeful that this comprehensive approach will result in strong reforms and funding for public schools as well as providing parents with more access to other educational options,” Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB), which advocates for policy in the state on behalf of the bishops, told CNA on Wednesday.

“There is less than a week left in this special session, but we are hopeful that if time runs out the Legislature will proceed quickly in the next called special session,” she said.

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The bill includes several eligibility requirements, including a prioritization for low-income disabled students as well as children from households making less than 185% of the federal poverty level — roughly $55,500 for a family of four. Students eligible include those in private schools as well as children who home-school, TCCB says.

The number of students allowed to participate in the program would be capped at 25,000 for the 2024-25 school year, a figure that would increase by 25,000 each successive year until 2027, when the program would expire. Allmon has expressed a hope that the program would not terminate in three years but would instead be extended for longer.

“We are pleased with the eligibility, prioritization of applicants, and the ESA amount,” Allmon said in an Oct. 23 statement.

The current bill includes a requirement that participating students take the STAAR test, a standardized test based on state curriculum standards in several core subjects that is designed to measure what students are learning in each grade and whether they are ready for the next, the test’s website says.

In his Tuesday proclamation, Abbott said he had reached an agreement with House leaders such that “the STAAR test will be phased out to be replaced with an improved assessment system.” He also said students participating in the program will have the option of taking a “norm-referenced test or STAAR test to ensure the program achieves good educational outcomes.”

Allmon said TCCB has been “strongly advocating” for the removal of the STAAR test requirement because although they support the use of a standardized test for ESA students, the STAAR test specifically is “aligned to the public-school curriculum, which is not necessarily taught in private schools.”

Allmon urged Texas Catholics to contact their representative to express support for the school choice bill.

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“St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!” she concluded in her Oct. 23 statement.

HB 1 has not yet come up for a vote in the Texas House after being filed Oct. 19 by Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen.

School choice gaining momentum

Early 2023 data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), which advocates for policy in the U.S. on behalf of Catholic school students, showed that just 10.5% of Catholic school students nationwide use a parental choice program. The push for school choice is gaining momentum, however, with seven states in 2023 alone enacting school choice programs that are available to all students, i.e. “universal.”

Most recently, in September, North Carolina became the 10th U.S. state to enact universal school choice by removing certain barriers to a state program that provides tuition assistance for students attending private schools. In some of those 10 states, such as Arizona and Indiana, nearly all of the state’s Catholic schools take part in school choice programs.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents have “the first responsibility for the education of their children” (No. 2223). Mothers and fathers, the catechism says, retain the right to both teach their children the morals imparted by the Church and “to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions” (No. 2229).

Polling by CNA’s parent organization, EWTN, released late last year found that U.S. Catholic parents broadly back initiatives to support school choice, with two-thirds saying they support a policy that allows students to make use of public education funds for the schools or services that best fit their needs.