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Gov. Greg Abbott is turning up the pressure on passing school choice. Will it pay off?

Greg Abbott
Posted at 11:44 AM, Apr 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-04 12:44:13-04

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Six years ago, Gov. Greg Abbott riled up a crowd of school choice supporters on the steps of the Texas Capitol, calling on lawmakers to send him a bill that would allow parents to use tax dollars to take their kids out of public schools.

“I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk,” Abbott said, donning a yellow scarf — the uniform of school choice advocates — to mark National School Choice Week.

That never happened, and soon enough, the proposal lost momentum as state leaders realized just how uphill of a battle it was. For the next two legislative sessions, Abbott skipped the Capitol rallies for National School Choice Week and was more muted in his support for the proposals.

But now, Abbott is pushing harder than ever for school choice as part of a broad focus on “parental rights” this session, strongly signaling that the issue is his top legislative priority. He has crisscrossed the state speaking at a dozen “Parent Empowerment” events often at nonpublic schools in more rural communities, laying out why he believes the Legislature should back so-called education savings accounts for every Texas parent.

But passage of a school choice measure is anything but a sure bet, as there is little evidence that he’s been able to convince rural Republicans in the Texas House — who have for years been a reliable firewall — to drop their opposition.

To go all in on such a risky bet is an unusual play by Abbott, a cautious operator who’s used to getting his way when it comes to his highest legislative priorities — and who tries to avoid waging losing battles. On issues that have split his own party, Abbott is known to withhold wielding his political capital until there’s a clear path for victory — as was the case with the 2021 passage of permitless carry of handguns, as one example.

“There does seem to be more emphasis and more of a priority on getting this legislation passed this session,” said Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, which opposes Abbott on this issue. “Obviously in past sessions … bills have been filed and it hasn’t been a real focus for Abbott.”

“School choice” generally refers to policies that allow parents to take their kids out of their assigned neighborhood public school and send them to other types of schools, like private or religious, with the help of government funding. The chief school-policy proposal this session is Senate Bill 8, which would create an education savings account with up to $8,000 in taxpayer money per student. The proposal differs from vouchers, which were the previous vehicle for school choice legislative proposals, in that the money would go straight to the parents instead of the school. The Senate Education Committee approved that bill Tuesday.

Such proposals have been met with resistance in the House by Democrats and rural Republicans who are protective of the public schools they see as the lifeblood of their close-knit communities. Lawmakers have sought to win them over this time by shielding school districts with fewer than 20,000 students from any funding losses caused by SB 8.

Abbott has named “education freedom” one of seven emergency items for the session and hit the road for it more than any other priority. Since early January, he has spoken at a dozen “Parent Empowerment” nights across the state, spanning Texas from Corpus Christi to Amarillo.

Some advocates for school choice who’ve previously criticized Abbott for a lack of commitment have taken notice of how far the governor is going now. Luke Macias, the far-right Texas consultant who previously worked for an Abbott primary challenger, said on a recent podcast that Abbott’s efforts were “incredibly encouraging.”

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Corey DeAngelis, the national school-choice activist, tweeted last week. “This is true leadership. All Republican Governors should be fighting just as hard to empower all families with school choice.”

Abbott’s intense campaigning has anti-school-choice lawmakers on alert. But they’re confident that their coalition in the Legislature will withstand the governor’s lobbying effort.

“I think that coalition is holding strong and I think Gov. Abbott knows how unpopular vouchers are in the Texas Legislature,” said Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock, one of the Democrats on the House Public Education Committee. “That’s why you’re seeing the governor putting as much lipstick on this pig as possible.”

Talarico and other lawmakers hope that the House will send a strong signal on the issue Thursday, when it is scheduled to take up the state budget and consider amendments to it. In 2021, lawmakers approved an amendment that prohibited the “use of appropriated money for school choice programs.” It passed 115-29, with a majority of Republicans joining Democrats to approve it. The amendment never made it into the final budget, but it served as a key indicator of the House’s appetite for such proposals.

The author of that 2021 amendment, Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, has proposed a similar amendment for the budget debate Thursday. A copy of the amendment released Monday features the support of Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, a key member of House GOP leadership who serves as speaker pro tem.

The first stop for any school choice bill in the House would likely be the Public Education Committee, which has a new chair this session, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, who has generated considerable intrigue. When House Speaker Dade Phelan. R-Beaumont, appointed Buckley to lead the panel in early February, school choice advocates voiced optimism. But it was unclear why — Buckley has been on the record against vouchers — and most groups did not explain why they were so hopeful.

One pro-school-choice group, the American Federation for Children, remains confident in Buckley.

“We praised Rep. Buckley’s appointment because he has always been a fair-minded guy and has long been committed to providing the best education possible for Texas children,” AFC spokesperson Nathan Cunneen wrote in an email. “We still believe that.”

Buckley has repeatedly declined to share his thinking on the matter this session. And he did not attend the second parent empowerment night that Abbott headlined, which was just outside Buckley’s district in Central Texas.

“I look forward to hearing bills that explore a wide range of options that keep parents at the center of their children’s educational opportunities,” Buckley said in a statement for this story. “In the end, the members of the public education committee will decide which options, if any, make their way to the floor for debate.”

Of the eight House Republicans that Abbott has appeared with on his parent empowerment tour across the state, four voted for the budget amendment in 2021 that banned state funds for school choice programs. Three opposed the amendment. The eighth Republican was not in the Legislature at the time.

The Texas Tribune reached out to all eight House Republicans that Abbott has appeared with and asked if they supported universal education savings accounts. Their offices either did not respond or declined to comment.

The Tribune also contacted the offices of nine more House Republicans, all representing rural areas, and they also chose not to comment on Abbott’s push.

Notably — and perhaps strategically — the education savings account legislation also contains other school priorities important to some Republican lawmakers, including a provision that would restrict classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity through the 12th grade.

Phelan himself has said he is fine with an “up-or-down vote” on the proposal, but he has noted the historical opposition it has faced in the House. He also was the only one of the so-called “Big Three” — a reference to the governor, the House speaker and the lieutenant governor — to not name school choice as priority legislation.

As for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, he has long championed school choice and proclaimed in his inaugural address in January that he is “all in” on it with Abbott. Patrick has also vowed to try to force a special session if lawmakers cannot pass a school choice bill in the regular session. That decision is ultimately up to the governor.

Abbott’s office did not answer a list of questions for this story, including whether he was prepared to call a special session over the issue.

Abbott’s evolution

Abbott’s last push on school choice came in 2017, when the Senate passed an education savings account bill, but it died in the House. The same thing happened in 2015.

The issue fell off the radar in the 2019 session, when Abbott and other state leaders decided to prioritize property tax relief and public education funding ahead of what was expected to be a challenging election.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. School choice advocates say the pandemic opened parents’ eyes to what their kids were being taught and spurred frustration with prolonged school closures at the hands of Democrats and teachers unions.

“They just went too far, and it’s a perfect storm,” said Dave Carney, Abbott’s top political adviser.

Indeed, it was a natural next step for Abbott, who had spent much of the pandemic fighting to make sure no local entities — including schools — could mandate COVID-19 safety policies.

Parents wanted more control over issues like mask mandates. Then, as the nation endured a racial reckoning after George Floyd was murdered by police in 2020, some parents and politicians started pushing back against conversations and books about race in schools.

After the 2021 session, Abbott rekindled some hope for school choice advocates when he signed into law an expansion of an education savings account program for students with disabilities.

It was not until his reelection campaign began that he really seized on the issue, introducing a “Parental Bill of Rights” in January 2022 that offered a host of ideas for giving parents more say over their kids’ schooling. His most consequential statement, though, came four months later, when he declared during a San Antonio campaign stop that parents should be able to “send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student.”

It was his clearest support yet for a voucher-like plan. And he later acknowledged it was a deliberate move, saying he wanted to make it “abundantly clear” he not only supported school choice but the strategy to achieve it.

The timing of the statement was intriguing. Abbott had already won his primary, but the governor, ever attuned to criticism on his right, was getting flak from some — including DeAngelis — for endorsing Texas House candidates in primary runoffs that month who allegedly opposed school choice.

Like many moments in Abbott’s reelection campaign, he bet — successfully — that soothing his right flank was worth the wrath of the other side. His Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, assailed Abbott over his comments that funding should follow the student, especially in rural Texas, but lost by 11 percentage points in November.

Abbott came off that win believing he had a mandate for the next legislative session to push harder for school choice than ever before.

“I’ve talked about school choice every year that I’ve been governor,” Abbott said in early March while addressing the Texas Pastor Council in Austin. “But not only do we have a better opportunity this session than we’ve had before, but as I will explain to you, we have a necessity.”

One factor that Abbott cited, in an explanation that he does not often use publicly, was “an extraordinary movement to expand transgenderism in schools in the state of Texas.” He accused public school teachers of “using their positions to try to cultivate and groom these young kids” into being transgender.

If Abbott prevails, it could be a legacy-making moment for a third-term governor who occasionally faces questions about what exactly he will be remembered for. It could also bolster him with Republicans if he decides to run for president in 2024, a race that already includes former President Donald Trump.

Abbott regularly gets compared to a likely 2024 candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a universal school-choice bill into law Monday, expanding a suite of programs the state already had in place. During a visit to Texas in early March, DeSantis gave a speech to Harris County Republicans in which he wished Texas luck in “bringing a big school choice package across the finish line.”

The rural Republicans

Speaking to the pastors, Abbott was frank about the challenge before him, saying it is House Republicans who “are holding up our ability to pass school choice” and they are “coming from rural Texas.”

Abbott has sought to appeal to rural Republicans by trying to convince them that the policy is popular. Over 80% of Republican primary voters approved a ballot proposition on it last year — and it enjoyed nearly as much support in rural Texas. Abbott’s office has further broken it down by House district, eager to show individual members that their base voters would have their back.

In some settings, Abbott has spoken more harshly about the forces weighing on rural Republicans.

“These Republicans who say, ‘Listen, I want to support it, but my constituents back home, they just are against it’ — that’s wrong!” Abbott said. “Now, some of their constituents are against it. We call them ‘educrats.’ The educrats — whether they be superintendents or some teachers or primarily the teacher unions — they’re against it, but they’re a minority and they’re a minority of voters in that district.”

Abbott’s appearances have put rural Republicans in a tough position politically — caught between their historical opposition to vouchers and their desire to please their party’s popular leader. The makeup of the legislation — which includes “anti-woke” policies that mimics Florida’s infamous “don’t say gay” legislation — also muddies the waters for Republicans who are at odds with only the education savings account component of the bill.

For the House Republicans who have agreed to introduce Abbott at his school choice tour events, their remarks have been carefully worded — and have avoided any specific policy endorsement.

One House Republican introduced Abbott at his event last week in Giddings by touting the schooling options that are already available to parents.

“Here in Texas, parents have great choices for how they choose to educate their children — excellent public schools, charter schools, private schools and more freedom to educate their kids at home than any other state in the country,” Rep. Stan Gerdes, R-Smithville, said.

One of the most interesting lawmaker appearances on Abbott’s school choice tour came in Corsicana, where Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, introduced the governor. A member of the House Public Education Committee, Harris has firmly opposed vouchers but has been an Abbott booster on other issues. (His Twitter profile picture is a photo of him talking with the governor.)

In his introductory remarks in Corsicana, Harris did not explicitly back Abbott on school choice but found a way to appeal to his rural constituents.

“[Abbott]’s leading the effort to push back on the woke indoctrination of Texas kids that we’re seeing in urban schools,” Harris said. “And he’s doing that by putting you, the parent, back in the driver’s seat.”

In reality, Abbott himself has rebuffed the notion that such “indoctrination” is a solely urban trend. He told the pastors it was happening regardless of whether “you’re in a tiny little town in East Texas or a large urban area.”

Regardless of whether it is successful, the school choice battle will likely spill over into the 2024 primaries for state House as members will face pressure to explain why they sided with — or against — Abbott on the issue. Abbott’s campaign says it stands ready to help lawmakers who stick out their necks to support his agenda.

“There should be no question, except if you drink too much, that Abbott doesn’t back up your support of him with his political support of you around election time,” Carney said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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"Gov. Greg Abbott is turning up the pressure on passing school choice. Will it pay off?" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/04/04/greg-abbott-school-choice-legislature-rural-republicans/.

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