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Can a Texas Pro-Public Education Coalition Once Again Stop School Vouchers?
“The public school is really the last pillar holding up many of these small-town communities around our state. And if we pass a private school voucher scam, that last pillar will fall.”
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is once again trying to ram through a massive redistribution of taxpayer dollars towards private schools, calling lawmakers back to Austin this week for the year’s third special session.
But on numerous occasions, most recently this spring, an unlikely coalition of Democrats and some House Republicans from rural communities—where families would be severely underserved by the move towards privatizing public education—have banded together to stop the effort.
The latest bill, SB 1, would spend $500 million over the next two years to create and fund education savings accounts to provide up to $8,000 per student for private school tuition and other expenses. The bill would not require that private schools administer the same state achievement exams that public school students have to take, meaning that despite both getting public money to educate students, each would be judged by different standards.
The bill appeared set to pass the Senate Thursday, but it almost certainly faces a tougher pathway in the House, at least in its current form.
“The states that have tried these voucher schemes have seen that they don't improve student performance, but they do siphon off billions from already underfunded public schools to subsidize the private education for the wealthy few,” Rep. James Talarico, a Democrat from central Texas and a former public school teacher, told More Perfect Union Wednesday.
Arizona expanded its voucher program to universal eligibility last year, with an average award of $7,200 per student. But an analysis from legislative analysts this week showed the program is already $40 million over budget; Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who opposed the expansion from the GOP-controlled legislature, said in a statement that legislative leaders should “pass accountability and transparency measures, and bring an end to this wasteful, runaway spending."
“It's welfare for the wealthy, and that's the point. That's the goal,” Talarico said of the effort in Texas. “This is a coordinated plan by wealthy special interests to dismantle public schools.”
‘Failing government schools’
The idea of school vouchers, which proponents market as “school choice,” is simple. The state gives access to taxpayer dollars to parents to use for private schools rather than public schools, usually in the form of education savings accounts (ESAs) that cover tuition as well as other education-related expenses.
Some supporters of school vouchers are explicit in saying they want to replace the secular public system with private schools, even religious ones, as part of an ideological war against teachers’ unions and perceived cultural liberalism in public education.
"The teachers union monopoly wants to force kids to attend their residentially assigned, government-run institutions that they staff," Corey DeAngelis, a right-wing anti-public education activist, told Fox News earlier this year. "It's about maintaining power. It's about maintaining a monopoly on the minds of other people's kids." (DeAngelis tweeted this week that public education in Texas is a “scam trapping other people's kids in failing government schools.” )
But others claim that vouchers are building a system parallel to public education — including Sen. Brandon Creighton (R), the leading proponent of school vouchers in the legislature and sponsor of the special session bill on track to pass the Senate. “Public school funding is not in any way affected by the funding in this legislation,” Creighton said during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.
To burnish that point, Creighton has also introduced a public school funding bill that would raise teacher pay (which did not happen during the regular session) and very slightly increase per-pupil funding. But it’s unclear whether school funding can even be considered in the special session agenda set by Abbott, which specifically references education savings accounts but not school funding.
Even still, opponents say the attempt to modestly boost public school funding is a cynical play for support for the voucher bill.
"This is not a goodwill effort to pay teachers more. This is a trade bill to get those who voted against vouchers to come on board," Northside-AFT president Wanda Longoria told KEN5 Wednesday. "At the end of the day, that's what this is all about.”
While the idea of vouchers has been around for decades and has been fraught with abuse when implemented, several states this year alone have passed laws funding universal school vouchers, meaning that even wealthy families will get taxpayer dollars to subsidize the costs of private school.
Those states include Florida, Iowa, and North Carolina, where — after flipping to a veto-proof Republican legislature when a pro-charter school Democrat switched parties — the legislature tripled funding for its Opportunity Scholarship Program and ended income requirements to access funding. North Carolina Senate Republicans have estimated that a family of four making up to $250,000 would get more than $3,200 in taxpayer dollars each year for private school tuition.
Meanwhile, decades after a state Supreme Court decision found that the underfunding of low-wealth North Carolina public schools was unconstitutional, the General Assembly has still not fulfilled its obligation to children in the state.
But Texas, despite having one of the most avowedly conservative state legislatures in the country, has not followed this trend.
School vouchers were first introduced in the Texas legislature in 1957, a few years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, as a way to give white parents money to send their kids to private schools rather than integrated public ones. (The proposal failed.)
Since then, the rationale for vouchers has substantially shifted. Supporters often point to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, often from urban and rural districts where public schools are underfunded, as ideal beneficiaries of vouchers — even though there’s a large body of evidence that vouchers have, at best, a negligible impact on student outcomes.
Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the state Senate, have both touted their support for school vouchers since their first runs for their respective offices in 2014, though Abbott told a teachers’ forum in Fort Worth that year that his plan for choice “focuse[d] solely on public schools, choice within the public school system."
But even with large Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, not to mention GOP control over every statewide office, the plan to bring vouchers to Texas has failed several times — in 2017, 2021, and then again earlier this year. In fact, the Texas House’s rejection of lofty school voucher programs has been a theme in the state going back nearly two decades to 2005.
Rural House Republicans and the Democratic caucus are the reason for that.
Talarico pointed out that 151 Texas counties, or 60 percent, don’t have a private school. For these places, public schools are often some of the last vestiges of civic life, he said.
“There are forces like globalization and technology and privatization that have hollowed out small towns around the state,” Talarico said. “There's no longer a local business that cares personally about its workers, no longer a local doctor who knows their patients personally…the public school is really the last pillar holding up many of these small-town communities around our state.”
“And if we pass a private school voucher scam, that last pillar will fall in many small towns across Texas,” he said.
Opponents of the Texas plan have pointed out that many families wouldn’t be able to afford tuition at some schools even with the vouchers.
“Most of my constituents, even with an $8,000 discount, the private school is probably so far away, they’re going to have to travel 30 or 40 miles to get to a private school,” Sen. Robert Nichols, the most moderate Republican in the legislature and one who represents more than a dozen counties in his east Texas district, told KUT this week. “And they still won’t be able to afford the balance of what’s owed.”
Republican Rep. Glenn Rogers told the Texas Tribune last week: “I support Gov. Abbott on every issue that I know of except for vouchers and will continue to do so. I’m voting based on what I believe represents my district.”
Another rural Texas Republican, Rep. Drew Darby, represents a district where Democrats have not fielded a candidate for more than a decade. He called his opposition to vouchers an “Alamo” moment and vowed to hold strong. “If I'm here in November, December, January, February, March... nothing changes.”
What’s happening in Texas reflects a broader reckoning around the country with school vouchers. More than a dozen Georgia Republicans from rural districts voted with Democrats earlier this year to similarly kill a school voucher effort backed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and the voucher lobby. So did House Democrats in Pennsylvania this summer, when Gov. Josh Shapiro (D), who expressed support for vouchers during his campaign, line-item vetoed $100 million in voucher funding in order to secure their support for the broader state budget.
And this week, Nebraska public school advocates got a referendum repealing their state’s new voucher law on the November 2024 ballot after successfully pulling together more than 92,000 signatures.
In April, the Texas Senate passed a bill sponsored by Creighton, who labeled it “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unleash the potential of education freedom,” that would have given up to $8,000 to Texas families per student for education. But the House significantly scaled back the scope of the bill, limiting access to children with disabilities and those attending the state’s lowest-performing schools, and Abbott threatened to veto it.
Abbott has promised to keep bringing lawmakers to Austin for special sessions until his voucher plan passes and has threatened to get involved in primary campaigns against Republicans who continue to oppose him on the issue. He’s already begun doling out political retribution; as Texas Monthly reported last week, he vetoed one Republican voucher opponent’s bill to establish a utility district in one county because, as Abbott said in his veto message, the bill is “simply not as important as education freedom.”
Regarding vouchers, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan indicated this week that the plan will only pass with funding for public schools as well. “I do feel like we can come to terms. It’s going to take not just a path forward on school choice, but on school funding,” Phelan said. “The truth of the matter is that we’re going to have both, we have to have both, and we’re in discussions with the governor’s office on that.”
Talarico said that he believes the “bipartisan majority” that has defeated vouchers in the past is “holding strong.”
“This is an existential threat to the project of public education, and therefore, to the project of democracy,” Talarico said. “I worry— and I think colleagues in both parties worry—that even a small voucher will be the beginning of the end for local public schools in Texas.”
Watch our previous coverage of Arizona’s voucher program here: