DALLAS — Republicans behind an aggressive push for school choice this session are angling to break the bond that previously thwarted voucherlike efforts in Texas: an unlikely coalition of rural Republicans and Democrats.
Gov. Greg Abbott has waged a pressure campaign across the state by promoting his plan at a series of “parent empowerment” events in rural areas. A package recently rolled out in the Senate would give families taxpayer money to spend on private school tuition and seems to dangle incentives to reluctant Republicans, such as hefty payments to public schools for every student they lose.
But the legislation remains a tough sell, especially in the GOP-led House, which has rejected voucherlike efforts in the past.
Several Republicans that represent rural parts of the state said they’re still skeptical for a lot of the same old reasons: a dearth of private schools in sparsely populated areas, a fear of funneling money away from public schools and a lack of transparency.
Rep. Cody Harris, a Palestine Republican who appeared alongside Abbott during his “parent empowerment” tour, said he doesn’t see much benefit to the students in his rural district southeast of Dallas that counts more than 30 public school districts, four public charter schools and two private schools.
Public schools are a vital part of rural communities, and he will fiercely defend them, Harris said.
“I’m not going to do anything that, in my view, harms our public schools,” he said. However, he added, “With that said, with any legislative policy, I’m not going to stick my fingers in my ears and say I’m not going to listen. I’ll listen to any argument that anybody wants to bring.”
The Senate’s priority proposal would give families up to $8,000 in taxpayer money through education savings accounts to send their kids to private school or spend on other educational items, such as books or tutoring. Conroe Sen. Brandon Creighton, the Republican author of the bill, says momentum has never been stronger.
“I represent rural counties as well. I feel like that parents more than ever before, they deserve these options and they know what’s best for their kids,” he said. “It will be interesting to see where the discussion goes through the rest of the session. I’m expecting success.”
Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, are on the same page in promoting the education savings accounts this year. However, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has not made the issue a priority.
Proponents say school choice efforts are critical to ensuring that families can decide the best educational settings for their children.
Critics contend that voucherlike programs don’t help students as they often fail to cover the true cost of private schools, which don’t have to accept all students. Money and resources are then diverted away from the public schools that serve the majority of Texas children, they argue.
The first public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday.
Creighton said the legislation aims to serve between 50,000 and 62,000 students, which could cost about $500 million during the state’s two-year budget cycle. Roughly two-thirds of the education savings accounts available would be prioritized for students in schools with lower academic ratings from the Texas Education Agency, he said.
Late on Monday, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion paving the way for the educational savings accounts by determining they don’t violate the state’s constitution.
Where are the private schools?
Palestine schools Superintendent Jason Marshall’s district of roughly 3,400 students would be financially shielded under the proposal — at least temporarily.
That’s the biggest sweetener for rural Republicans: a $10,000 payment to public schools for every student who uses an education savings account to leave. Creighton called it a “soft landing,” and recently Patrick brought up the money as a selling point.
“We’re going to have a plan, hopefully it will get the rural members with us,” Patrick said at a March 8 business summit in Austin. “If we take a child out of your school, and we’re going to give that child money to go to private, we’re going to pay you for that child for two years even though he’s not there.”
The financial cushion would be available to districts with fewer than 20,000 students. While the payments would apply to the vast majority of the state’s more than 1,000 public school districts, the money would not be guaranteed to last beyond the first two years of the program.
Even with the “hold harmless” provision, many rural school leaders such as Marshall can’t get behind the effort.
“We just don’t support vouchers,” he said. “It’s pretty dangerous when those of us who are in public schools start saying, ‘Well, it won’t affect us, in Palestine and rural America, like it affects Dallas ISD.’”
Rural lawmakers typically opposed voucherlike initiatives because public schools often serve as more than just an education center.
They are also employers and community hubs. Plus, few private school alternatives operate in those sparsely populated parts of Texas.
The Dallas Morning News mapped every public and private school in the state and found private school deserts across wide swaths of Texas.
In pockets across the Panhandle and West Texas, for example, families would have to travel long distances to reach a private school.
Meanwhile, the 71 biggest school districts, including Dallas ISD, that cater to more than half the state’s 5.4 million public school students would not receive the hold harmless money.
Those urban centers are where private education is most accessible. Still, distribution of those private schools is often uneven between neighborhoods in city centers.
Patrick previously pitched that any voucher legislation would exclude small, rural districts and instead be directed only at urban communities. He called Dallas and other big districts “dropout factories” — even as the Texas Education Agency rates most of them as an A or B district.
As state leaders make the appeal, they’re tying voucherlike programs to parental empowerment.
The details of the Senate’s education savings account proposal are wrapped in a sweeping 50-page bill alongside provisions that tap into the parental angst that’s fueling culture war issues this legislative session.
Creighton’s bill would, for example, also establish rules preventing schools from providing “instruction, guidance, activities, or programming regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“Parental rights and making decisions with money that belongs to the family on behalf of their students for educational freedom, I just think that is inextricably linked,” Creighton said.
Joshua Blank, research director for the University of Texas’ Texas Politics Project, co-wrote an analysis of Senate Bill 8 that says attaching school choice to curriculum concerns and the parental rights fight presents an “opportunity to channel growing conservative suspicions about public education into efforts to tip the scales.”
“The hope, especially among leadership in the Senate, is that the voucher program can be pulled across the finish line by those other issues,” he said.
As Abbott tours the state — touting the school choice plan at various Christian private schools — he’s leaned into the rhetoric that parents, angry about “woke agendas,” need a way out.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation is boosting the school choice message in tandem with Abbott as representatives from the conservative think tank appear with the governor at events held in conservative pockets around the state.
Communication between the offices shows a focus on rural messaging, with Abbott’s education policy adviser reaching out to TPPF for ideas in January. Mandy Drogin, a campaign director for TPPF’s education efforts, sent Abbott’s speechwriter a long list of talking points, including “objections and responses” and a “rural polling memo,” ahead of a school choice event on Jan. 31 in Corpus Christi.
“Apologies if this is an overload of content,” she wrote in an email, obtained by The News through a public information request. “Wanted to provide as much information as possible and allow you to decipher what you believe is best for the Governor to cover.”
In a written statement, a spokesperson said Abbott’s office “regularly works with Texas organizations who can provide support on critical issues facing Texans, including ensuring all Texas students have access to the best educational opportunities.”
“Governor Abbott made education freedom an emergency item this legislative session because no one knows the needs of their child better than a parent,” spokesperson Andrew Mahaleris said.
Rep. Hugh Shine, a Temple Republican, introduced Abbott when the governor visited his district during the parental empowerment tour. However, he likened it to a moment reminiscent of former Democratic U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan, “where we can be together and maybe not necessarily agree on the particular issue.”
Shine said “there’s some real issues with accountability” and pointed out that private schools get to choose their students.
”My real focus is more on the funding side of public education as it stands right now and trying to bring the property tax liability down,” he said. “I want to talk about how we fund what we got.”
Any voucherlike initiative worries many school leaders, who liken it to seeing the camel’s nose under the tent.
Gradually growing limited voucherlike programs has happened in several other states. In Indiana, for example, a program started more than a decade ago with 7,500 available spots and now has grown to roughly 44,000.
“If they tried to get the educational savings account for a small little corner of students today, they’re going to expand that next session,” said Michael Lee, Texas Association of Rural Schools director. “That’s their MO.”
Public school officials are watching what happens.
District leaders in Palestine, about two hours southeast of Dallas, have good relationships with officials who run a small Christian school in town, Superintendent Marshall said. The school costs about $5,000 a year but only runs through eighth grade, according to its website.
If students wanted to continue private education through high school, they might have to drive about 40 minutes to Athens or, perhaps, enroll in a virtual private school.
The superintendent is not necessarily worried about a mass exodus of his students, he said. Still, he doesn’t want overall education funding to take a hit.
“I have no problem with private school education at all. But … our kids don’t have access to that type of private education,” he said. “We need to be focused on improving public education, and everything that fits into the public education system, instead of focusing on doing something different.”
(The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.)