School Vouchers Have Once Again Failed in Texas
Despite heavy political pressure from the governor, a Texas pro-public education coalition held firm against a costly voucher scheme.
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
Proponents of school voucher schemes have had a lot to be happy about in 2023. States like North Carolina, Florida, and Iowa all passed sweeping legislation allowing even the wealthiest in their states to access taxpayer money for private school tuition, at the expense of public school students.
Time after time after time, the enormously well-funded voucher lobby has run into a brick wall of resistance in the House of Representatives. While every lever of government in Texas is controlled by the GOP and increasingly lurching towards the right, a small but solid bloc of House Republicans—many of them representing rural districts—have continued to join with Democrats to beat back Gov. Greg Abbott’s unrelenting push for vouchers, even as he’s called legislators back to Austin for several special sessions and threatened to support primaries against GOP dissenters.
On Monday, the House adjourned after an unprecedented fourth special session ended with Abbott, who has arguably staked his legacy on the voucher issue, no closer than where he started. Rep. James Talarico, an Austin Democrat and former public school teacher, said the reason for the effort’s continued failure is simple: a voucher program “hurts our constituents.”
“It seems old-fashioned to center the needs of the people you represent, but I think that's what the legislators in the Texas House did on this issue,” Talarico said. “Democrats who represent urban and suburban areas, Republicans who represent rural small towns—all recognized that voucher scams take money out of our underfunded schools to subsidize the private schooling of the wealthy few.”
There’s good reason for opposing the plan. All across the country, voucher programs have given money to mostly religious private schools, with no accountability over academic performance or discrimination against students.
And in Arizona, the flood of vouchers after the state expanded the program has helped create a sizable hole in the state budget that could affect other public services.
Abbott has already begun endorsing primary challengers to some of the 21 Republicans who voted against the voucher plan, according to the Texas Tribune. Last weekend, he endorsed Republican Hillary Hickland, who has called for a “full audit” of school libraries to scrutinize books she finds objectionable, over GOP Rep. Hugh Shine.
Texas public schools, meanwhile, have been left in the lurch by the state government. Despite a $32.7 billion state budget surplus, the state hasn’t increased public school funding in four years, according to Texas Public Radio. Talarico said that the Pflugerville ISD, which is in his district, will have to close schools if more funding doesn’t come their way soon.
“That just reveals that this whole thing has never been about helping kids,” Talarico said. “It has always been about dismantling the public education system.”
Nearly 50,000 public school teachers in Texas, who are making less money than they did a decade ago adjusted for inflation, left their jobs last year, according to a Texas Education Agency report. Abbott commissioned a task force to study teacher vacancies in 2022, which published a report in February saying the need to increase compensation for teachers and support staff is “foundational” to recruitment and retention.
Paige Frontera, a teacher of nearly 30 years, told KXAN earlier this month that she and her husband, also a teacher, had to sell their home and plan to move out of state soon because they can’t afford the cost of living. “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 told the channel.
Abbott has not indicated if and when he’ll call for another special session, and the Texas legislature does not meet for regular sessions in even-numbered years.
But Shine, one of the Republicans Abbott wants to depose, has already announced he’s running for re-election. “This is our community, and we will elect a representative,” Shine told the Texas Tribune after Abbott endorsed Hickland. “The governor will not elect the representative of this district.”
Talarico expressed skepticism that Abbott has the sway to crush the voucher holdouts. In 2018, Abbott put his money and endorsement behind primary challengers to 16 Republican lawmakers; all but two of the incumbents won.
"I trust these rural Republican lawmakers to know the politics in their district better than Greg Abbott does,” he told More Perfect Union. “And Greg Abbott has primaried legislators before. He doesn't have a great track record of winning.”
“So I'm not sure my colleagues fear Greg Abbott, as much as they're just annoyed by him,” he added.
For more, watch our recent video report on Arizona’s school voucher program: