(Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Abbott Demands Vouchers—Or Else

From bullying legislators to co-opting church pulpits, the governor and the billionaires behind him are determined to defund public schools.


Governor Greg Abbott has called lawmakers back to a special legislative session starting this coming Monday, October 9. His message to them: Pass school vouchers—or else. 

“There’s an easy way to get it done, and there’s a hard way,” Abbott said during a September 19 tele-town hall. “If we do not win in that first special session, we will have another special special session and we’ll come back again. And then if we don’t win that time … We will have everything teed up in a way where we will be giving voters in a primary a choice.”

From bullying legislators to “co-opting” churches and religious services, Abbott “wants to force a voucher at all costs,” said Patty Quinzi, legislative director of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. Pulling the purse strings of Abbott’s voucher campaign are a handful of billionaires who have invested millions to weaponize far-right culture war propaganda to fund what the governor has branded as “school choice” for parents.  

Meanwhile, many public school districts started this school year with a budget deficit after the Senate refused to use the state’s $33 billion budget surplus to increase school funding without the condition of passing universal vouchers. 

During the regular session, the House twice rejected proposals for vouchers or “an educational savings account,” citing constituent concerns that voucher programs would siphon money from public schools. When the Senate attempted to force the House to accept universal vouchers in return for passing its school funding proposal, its author, Representative Ken King, pulled the bill. 

“In the end, the Senate would not negotiate at all. It was a universal ESA or nothing,” King wrote in his public statement. “I am committed to protecting the 5.5 million school kids in Texas from being used as political hostages. What the Governor and the Senate [have] done is inexcusable, and I stand ready to set it right and continue to work for the best outcome for our students and schools.” 

In early August, the House’s 15-member committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment issued its interim report, signaling some members’ willingness to compromise on school vouchers if they were limited to students with special needs and if the money to fund a voucher program came out of the state general revenue instead of the Permanent School Fund. Earlier this year, the Texas Observer revealed how limited voucher programs in other states served as a trojan horse for larger, universal voucher programs, leaving public schools with large deficits and a loss of federal civil rights protections for parents who took their children out of public schools. 

“We are $40 billion below the national average for school funding, so we have no business talking about any kind of program that takes more money out of our public schools,” said Representative Gina Hinojosa, who serves on the committee but declined to endorse its recommendations. 

Quinzi agreed that any kind of compromise on vouchers would hurt public schools: “There’s no magic pot of money that just showed up for vouchers. It all comes from one pot. And if there’s going to be a new hand coming to collect money out of our public schools, then our public schools are gonna hurt,” she said. 

The House committee further recommended that the Legislature increase school funding by raising the basic per-pupil allotment. But Abbott has not even included school funding in his agenda for the special session. Besides vouchers, he is prioritizing measures to crack down on undocumented immigrants and to ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates by private employers. 

Since Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick rebuked House representatives after Ken Paxton’s impeachment proceedings, conflicts between the House and Senate have escalated, leaving many to conjecture that the two chambers will not compromise during the special session. 

“I don’t believe a universal voucher can pass the House,” Hinojosa said. 

The costs are high for the handful of wealthy conservative billionaires who have poured money to see vouchers in Texas. Chris Tackett, a former Granbury ISD board trustee turned public education advocate, analyzed Texas Ethics Commission data to reveal that around 44 wealthy donors have invested at least $7.8 million in pro-voucher political actions committees (PAC), and these PACs have spent at least $5 million to influence legislators and advertise for vouchers. 

Chris Tackett's visual analysis of Texas Ethics Commission data reveals the wealthy donors behind the push for vouchers in Texas.
Chris Tackett’s visual analysis of Texas Ethics Commission data reveals the wealthy donors behind the push for vouchers in Texas. Click graphic to expand. (Chris Tackett)

Not all of this support is homegrown. Former Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ national pro-voucher organization, the American Federation for Children, set up the Texas Federation for Children back in 2020. According to Tackett’s analysis, the national organization invested $1.9 million in Texas’ voucher campaign. 

The majority of that money has gone to flooding local neighborhoods with school choice advertisements. 

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According to Tackett’s analysis of this pot of money, fewer than ten billionaires have invested millions in multiple pro-voucher PACs—the Texas Federation for Children, Texans for Educational Freedom, Coalition Por Texas, and the Family Empowerment Coalition—making these funders the nexus of Texas’ pro-voucher campaign. The cadre of wealthy backers Tackett examined include oil tycoon and vice chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) Tim Dunn, private investor and TPPF board member Stacy Hok, co-founder of Weekley Homes and the Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) Richard Weekley, TPPF founder James Leninger, and Texas Senator and president and CEO of Middleton Oil Mayes Middleton. 

“There is a money component and there is an ideology component,” Tackett said. “Public education is a huge piece of the state budget. And if private institutions can get a piece of it … they stand to make a ton of money.” 

To get there, they’re using cultural war rhetoric to convince parents that public schools are indoctrinating their children. 

“It’s not just injecting religion in the public schools,” Tackett said. “It’s tearing down public schools so that they can get to the indoctrination they’re really looking for.”

Both oil tycoons Farris Wilks and Dunn have previously stated they want to “tear up, tear down public education to nothing” and replace the current system with private Christian schools. DeVos has stated that vouchers will “build God’s Kingdom.” 

Not all religious leaders and conservatives in Texas are buying it. 

Earlier this week, members of the Baptist General Convention of Texas called out Abbott for violating constitutional laws that separate church and state when he called on religious leaders to use the pulpit to promote “School Choice Sunday” on October 15. 

“Government should not interfere with the free exercise of religion, and no religion should depend on public tax dollars for support,” wrote Baptist church leaders in the statement.  

Director of Pastors for Texas Children Reverend Charles Johnson told the Observer that the fear-mongering about indoctrination in public schools is “ludicrous.” 

“When [rural Texans] really look around the school, they see their family members and their church members,” Johnson said. “They’ve grown up together, the children have been in school together. There are cross-racial relationships. The teacher who harbors a humanistic concern for the well-being of every child is going to guard the freedom and dignity of the child’s religious expression.”

On Saturday, public school advocates will hold a “Boot Vouchers Rally” in front of the state capitol at noon. 

Meanwhile, voucher proponents like the national group Accuracy in Media, whose president Adam Guillette founded the Florida chapter of the Koch brothers Americans for Prosperity, are already making good on Abbott’s threats to go after Republican representatives who have not espoused support for universal vouchers. 

Advertising trucks like this one funded by Accuracy in Media have started to appear in local neighborhoods, saying that local representatives “love radical schools” and “hate parents.”