He threatened. He baited. But no amount of sticks or carrots helped Texas Governor Greg Abbott pass school vouchers—a means of redirecting public dollars to private institutions—during a third special legislative session he had explicitly called to see his pet project passed. After the state House twice rejected vouchers in the regular 88th legislative session, Abbott failed to persuade lawmakers. Again.
Last Tuesday, Abbott made a fourth-quarter effort to pass vouchers when he announced he had struck a deal with House leadership. “Working with Speaker [Dade] Phelan and his House leadership team, the Speaker and I reached an agreement on school choice for Texas families,” Abbott said.
But after Phelan dismissed House members Wednesday evening without any discussion of voucher proposals and announced a return Monday or Tuesday, when the session ends, it was clear: School vouchers are dead in Texas. For now.
“The House has rules, and we are up against the timeline,” GOP Representative Brad Buckley, chairman of the House Committee on Public Education, told reporters after the House met on Wednesday.
Abbott’s purported deal would have been more expansive than Senate Bill 1, passed earlier in the session, or House Bill 1, which Buckley had filed but was never referred to committee since it included school funding measures not part of Abbott’s agenda. Whereas the Senate and House bills restricted the number or types of students who would be eligible, Abbott’s alleged bargain would set up a universal voucher program where all Texas school-aged children would be eligible to receive $10,400 per year.
After previously insisting that a voucher bill pass before any school funding would be considered, Abbott caved and expanded the agenda earlier this week to consider not only school funding but a phasing out of the state standardized test called STAAR. It wasn’t enough to get lawmakers to bite.
“Lawmakers are not easily fooled. This is a small increase in school funding. It’s a fraction of a fraction of what we need,” Representative James Talarico said to the TexasObserver. “Lawmakers know that a voucher scam is going to ultimately take more money out of our schools than it ever puts in. So, no, lawmakers won’t fall for this cheap bribe.”
Democrats in both chambers have publicly repeated there will be no compromise in their opposition to any form of voucher program. “House Democrats have been very clear since day one that any bill that includes a voucher scam will take more money out of our schools than it puts in,” Talarico said.
The rural House Republicans who previously rejected voucher proposals during the regular session have been quieter this session. But during an interview on Inside Texas Politics with Dallas’ ABC affiliate WFAA last Sunday, Republican Representative Drew Darby said: “I find it objectionable any talk of taking public dollars out of public schools and supporting private or parochial schools that don’t have the same accountability, don’t have the same test, don’t have the same transparency, and don’t have open enrollment policies.”
Darby added that only when there are significant increases in school funding—and only if voucher proposals included the same accountability requirements for private schools as there are for public schools—then “maybe we can engage in discussion.”
Despite the repeated failures to pass school vouchers in Texas (there has been bipartisan opposition since vouchers were first proposed in 1957), Abbott is expected to call a fourth special session right after the third special session ends next Tuesday.
“It’s just not a good look to keep losing. And particularly to lose at the hands of your own … partisan colleagues with whom you have joined forces many times,” Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, told the Observer. “We’ve been dealing with the voucher issue for years now. And it’s roughly the same fight every time and the same blocking coalition prevails.
Both Jillson and Drew Landry, government professors at South Plains College, are doubtful a fourth special session will yield different results.
Talarico says that lawmakers are becoming fed up: “I think my colleagues and I on both sides of the aisle are frustrated. The governor has called us back to try to pass this voucher scam instead of tackling the real problems that Texans face.
Landry thinks Abbott’s hellbent approach to getting an expansive universal voucher program is intentional. Abbott has already threatened to back primary candidates against Republican members who don’t vote for vouchers. “I’m even questioning if he really truly wants this bill to pass because that means it would take away a lot of the ammo that he has threatened to unleash in the Republican primary,” Landry said.
When Inside Texas Politics host Jason Whitely asked Darby if his opposition to vouchers would affect his reelection campaign, he said, “I think the folks in my district know me. … I feel strongly that I can defend our position to support public schools back home and not think twice about it.”
Even though Abbott touts polls showing parents want “school choice,” a recent survey by the University of Texas at Austin reveals more people oppose the program when they realize it will divert public money away from public schools to pay for private school tuition.
Across Texas and the political spectrum, opponents have been vocal throughout this special session. Religious leaders have denounced Abbott’s attempts to co-opt the pulpit to promote school vouchers. “It’s a shame to try to engage the religious community into wanting and supporting what most of us believe will be a total destruction of public education,” John D. Ogletree Jr. of First Metropolitan Baptist Church in Houston told Spectrum 1 News.
Reverend Kyle Childress, pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, wrote in the Daily Sentinel: “Public money [is] pooled together to educate all our children, not just some children, and not just ‘my’ children, but all ‘our’ children. It’s among the most important and essential things we do as a community. To my great disappointment, our own Texas Governor Abbott is trying to disrupt all that.”
Public school advocates making up the Coalition for Public Schools wrote in a joint letter published October 6, “No bargain on any form of vouchers is worth diverting Texans’ hard-earned tax dollars to unaccountable private schools and risking the damage to our public schools.” Plumbers and construction workers trained as school substitutes so they could relieve public school teachers to protest vouchers in Austin. Business leaders in North Texas wrote in the Dallas Morning News, “The vouchers proposed would move tax dollars to unregulated and unaccountable private schools. School vouchers are bad for businesses, bad for our communities and bad for the future workforce in Texas.” And even grandparents, making up Grandparents for Public Schools (GPS), traveled to the Texas Capitol to speak out against school vouchers.
“We’ve got teachers driving up to take a personal day to visit offices at the Capitol, whereas the other side has a plane flying around with a banner, digital billboard ads, around-the-clock commercials. It’s just very obvious that this is a paid push. It’s not a grassroots effort,” said Patty Quinzi, legislative director of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.
Reverend Charles Johnson, president of Pastors for Texas Children, said that the more Abbott pushes for vouchers, the more he removes himself from the needs of Texans. The legislative session is set to end next week without any measures to increase much-needed funding for public school districts.
“Abbott doesn’t talk to Texans,” Johnson said. “He talks to his billionaire masters who hire these people who are not from our communities in Texas. They don’t know our culture. They don’t know the dynamics of our neighborhoods.”