AUSTIN (KXAN/Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he reached an “agreement” with Texas House leaders that could advance his stalled school choice plan, as time runs short to approve it before the third special legislative session ends in exactly one week. However, the Speaker’s office stopped short of confirming a deal.

Abbott said he expanded the special session agenda to now include additional public school funding as well as teacher pay raises after working with House Speaker Dade Phelan. He said their deal would also raise the proposed amount of money that families could receive through an education savings account program he’d like to establish in state. He added participating students could receive approximately $10,400 per year, which is higher than the numbers previously proposed by both the House and Senate.

When asked for comment Tuesday, the Speaker’s press secretary, Cassi Pollock, said Phelan and his office worked with the governor daily to expand the call for the special session.

“Speaker Phelan thanks the governor for expanding the call and looks forward to having robust discussions on school funding, teacher pay and other critical education issues with his House colleagues,” Pollock added. “All members will have the opportunity to make their voices heard.”

Abbott issued the below statement on his decision to expand the session:

“Working with Speaker Phelan and his House leadership team, the Speaker and I reached an agreement on school choice for Texas families, and I am expanding the agenda for Special Session #3. 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. Participating students will be eligible for approximately $10,400 per year in their Education Savings Account, administered by an education organization overseen by the Texas Comptroller on behalf of the parents and students participating in the program. We will also provide billions more in public education funding to boost Texas’ top-notch public school system, including teacher pay raises, while staying within the constitutional spending limit. This bill will codify recommendations made by the Teacher Vacancy Task Force, the Commission on Virtual Education, and the Commission on Special Education Funding. Importantly, the STAAR Test will be phased out to be replaced with an improved assessment system.

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.”

Gov. Greg Abbott

‘Caught in the middle’: Texas teachers hold out for pay raises

At a time when Texas teachers are resigning at record rates, educators frequently cite low pay as a reason they choose to leave the profession. Paige Frontera, a middle school history teacher within Dripping Springs ISD, said she is capped at $63,000 annually after 29 years of teaching.

She said she and her husband, who is also a teacher, had to sell their longtime family home in order to make ends meet. Now renting, they plan to move to Missouri once their daughter graduates high school because they feel they can no longer afford living in Texas.

“At the end of the day, had they given us even a $8,000 pay raise between my husband and I would not have had to sell my house,” she said. “I have plenty of colleagues who are, you know, they’re running up credit card debt, every single month. They’re basically paying the minimum balance, they can’t pay their rent. They’re literally, literally living off of ramen noodles again, you know — nobody can pay their taxes. It’s really just horrific.”

A Republican voter, Frontera said she has voted to elect Abbott for all three of his terms, but is disappointed in the state of political fighting over education.

“I’ve committed my entire life as my husband to public education and to serving any kid that walks in my door,” she said. “You need to fund public teachers and you need to give us a great, big fat raise so that we can actually afford…we’re not taking vacations. We are literally trying to put food on the table.”

Democrats and rural Republicans still oppose ESAs

Reps. Gina Hinojosa and James Talarico, the Austin Democrats who co-chair the House Democratic Caucus Committee on Education, reacted to these developments by saying they would work to defeat this plan.

“House Democrats have been clear since day one: any bill that includes a voucher scam will take more money out of our schools than it puts in, shortchanging our children and their futures,” part of their statement Tuesday afternoon read.

Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd, said the fighting over education savings accounts and public school funding feels like “political theater.” Although he is a supporter of the governor, Bailes criticized Abbott for not putting public school funding and teacher pay raises on the special session agenda in the first place.

Bailes is part of a group of 24 Republicans who, during the regular session, voted yes a budget amendment that would have prohibited Texas from using public dollars for private schools. As for whether he and fellow colleagues are more open to ESAs now, Bailes told Nexstar, “I don’t think there’s any shift on that.”

According to an email from Abbott’s office, key aspects of the legislation to expand school choice in Texas include the following:

  • Universal eligibility for all K-12 schoolchildren in Texas.
  • Voluntary participation – parents, students, and schools choose whether they want to participate.
  • Students will receive approximately $10,400 per year in their Education Savings Accounts.
  • Phases out the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) Test.
  • 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.
  • Billions more in funding for Texas public schools for the biennium, including teacher pay raises and school safety.

Abbott previously said he would keep calling lawmakers back to the Capitol for more special sessions if they could not send a school voucher bill to his desk. He even suggested he may wade into certain Republican primaries next year if House members continue to oppose the measure.