As the Senate passed its voucher bill, Senate Bill 1, by a vote of 18-13 last night, Governor Greg Abbott gave a progress report on work with state House members to the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a right-wing think tank whose board members include billionaires Tim Dunn, Doug Deason, Stacy Hock, state Senator Mayes Middleton, and James Leninger—all who have been bankrolling the push to privatize public education in Texas.
“We are on the 1-yard line,” Abbott said. “I want to make sure we provide a carrot to make sure this legislation gets passed. … Once [education savings account] are passed, I will put on the legislative agenda full funding for public education, including teacher pay raises for teachers across the state.”
Abbott’s special session on school vouchers is not about kids, parents, or schools. It is about money, politics, and religion.
SB 1 would transfer $500 million from state general revenue funds to a universal voucher program. Under the program, public or private school students could apply for a $8,000 “education savings account” to use on tuition, materials, private tutors, transportation, education-related therapy, or services. Alongside SB 1, the Senate also passed a school funding bill, SB 2, which would increase the basic per-pupil allotment by $75.
The House has not yet filed a voucher bill, but Abbott has been working with a group of House Republicans to draft one.
For decades, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have beaten back efforts to establish vouchers in Texas. The House twice rejected vouchers in the regular 88th legislative session earlier this year. In April, 86 House members, including 24 Republicans representing rural districts, voted to approve the Herrero amendment, named after its author, Representative Abel Herrero, to prohibit state money from going to private institutions. In May, 76 House members pulled their school finance bill, HB 100, after the Senate inserted a $500 million voucher program. But in the past few months, Abbott has threatened to run Republican legislators out of office if they do not side with him this time.
Democrats have steadfastly opposed vouchers in any form.
“Governor, you have taken hostages and those hostages are our kids,” state Representative Gina Hinojosa said in a press conference held at the Capitol Monday.
Hinojosa joined other House Democrats who said they would not make any compromises on vouchers. “No vouchers and no deals,” said state Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
Representatives from the American Federation for Children, a national school privatization PAC started by former Education Secretary Betsy Devos, opened up the public hearing at Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee’s meeting to express support for SB 1. The organization has invested $1.9 million in its campaign for vouchers in Texas. Devos has said that by supporting religious schools, vouchers can “advance God’s kingdom.”
“The Texas education establishment does not want families to have the ability to choose a school that works best for their children,” said Las Vegas resident and American Federation of Children representative Valeria Gurr.
Others who spoke in favor of SB 1 included Donald Garner, executive director of the Texas branch of the national Faith and Freedom Coalition, whose motto is ‘to protect Christian values and to keep God at the center of our country;” Allan Parker, president of the Justice Foundation, whose mission is to “restore proper respect for God’s word and law to American jurisprudence;” and Jerry Davis, a representative of the Texas Pastors Council who described the voucher effort as a “mandate by God” at the hearing.
But school district superintendents, parents, teachers, and public school advocates, conservative and progressive alike, who spoke against the bill, outnumbered those in favor. They expressed concerns that a voucher program would siphon money away from underfunded public schools. According to U.S. News and World Report, Texas ranks 43 nationwide in per-pupil spending.
SB 1 author and the Senate’s education committee chair state Senator Brandon Creighton repeatedly assured, “There will be no detriment to public schools.”
But Jaime Puente, director of economic opportunity at the public advocacy organization Every Texan, explained that when a student leaves a public school, school funding leaves with that student. No matter the number of students left in a classroom, schools still have to pay fixed costs for teachers, equipment, and building maintenance.
Small and mid-sized school district superintendents echoed this concern at the hearing.
“Schools are forced to spread the same costs for facilities, transportation, administration, and instruction over a smaller revenue stream,” said Benny Soileu, superintendent of Huffman ISD, a district with 3,700 students.
Every Texan calculated the amount that each Texas school district would lose under SB 1. If 5 percent of 5.5 million public school students participated in the voucher program, Texas school districts would lose a total of $2.28 billion.
The $500 million program could balloon to millions more in a matter of years. State Senator Royce West reminded the Senate that, as the bill is written, the governor has the authority to transfer unlimited amounts of public funds to his pet projects, as he has done with immigration-enforcement program Operation Lonestar, without going through the legislative process.
Arizona’s education savings account voucher program, which was billed at $2.5 million in its first year in 2011, has now expanded to a universal program costing the state $943 million, creating a $319 million state deficit for the 2024 fiscal year. Fifty-three percent of all primary education spending goes to only 8 percent of Arizona students.
“The universal school voucher program is unsustainable. Unaccountable school vouchers do not save taxpayer money, and they do not provide a better education for Arizona students,” Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, wrote in a public statement this past summer.
Under SB 1, the comptroller can retain 3 percent of the funds and disburse up to another 5 percent to private “certified educational assistance organizations” to administer the program. The $40 million in administrative costs for what opponents called a “vendor bill” is roughly the same amount as the total budget for most small school districts that are running deficits this year after the state failed to apply its $33 billion surplus to fund public education.
Creighton applauded his school funding bill, SB 2, as “unprecedented,” but public school advocates criticized the $75 increase to the $6,160 basic per-pupil allotment as woefully inadequate given that an additional $1,100 is needed to adjust for inflation since 2019; an additional $4,000 would be needed to bring it up to the national average.
While SB 2 does include a one-time retention payment of up to $10,000, it would sever teacher raises from the basic allotment and tie them primarily to the Teacher Incentive Allotment program, which awards raises based on administrators’ evaluations. Currently, if there is an increase in the basic student allotment, 30 percent needs to be used for raises; of that amount, 75 percent must be used for raises for teachers, counselors, librarians, and school nurses.
“The Texas Legislature proposes giving crumbs to the most vulnerable students, while its voucher scams give welfare to the well-off,” Hinojosa said.
SB1’s costly program would likely only benefit 1 percent of public school students, but even this is not guaranteed: An analysis by the National Coalition for Public Education shows that the majority of voucher beneficiaries in other states were already enrolled in private schools when vouchers came on the scene.
Creighton and other voucher proponents argued that the voucher program would “level the playing field” by allotting 40 percent of program funding to low-income families and 20 percent to children with disabilities.
However, parents of disabled children testified that they were either rejected from private schools or the schools were not able to address their child’s needs.
“Nobody wants you,” said parent Irma Wilson. Private schools that did accept her son either didn’t serve his need, or, like the Catholic school he went to, “abused him” when attempting to restrain him. Because private schools are not required to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires that schools receiving federal dollars provide services for all students with disabilities to be in the least restrictive environment with their peers, Wilson had no legal recourse.
Noting that the state has underfunded special education by $4.4 billion, policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas Steve Aleman said, “We need to focus on supporting students with disabilities first in public schools. Frankly, vouchers are just a luxury we cannot afford.“