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Special session at Texas Capitol on school vouchers to start Oct. 9

 Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference on Aug. 14, 2023.
Michael Minasi / KUT
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference on Aug. 14, 2023.

Texas lawmakers will soon be called back to the state Capitol in Austin to tackle unfinished business that is expected to include legislation on using taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition.

A letter from Gov. Greg Abbott to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan making the rounds on social media stated the special session will begin Oct. 9.

The announcement is hardly a surprise as Abbott has said he’d call lawmakers back to address a voucher plan, or what’s referred to as education savings accounts. The measure, which supporters have dubbed “school choice,” failed to pass during the Texas Legislature’s regular session that ended in May.

It won’t be an easy task for lawmakers to tackle: Democrats and some rural Republicans are wholeheartedly opposed to any measure that would divert public funds towards private schools, a move they say will cripple the public school system. But in recent weeks, Abbott has made his intent to force the issue very clear. He recently held a tele-townhall with religious leaders and called on voters to contact lawmakers in their districts to push for what he calls “educational freedom.”

“I believe that every parent can do a better job of raising their children if they are given the power to choose the school that is best for their child,” Abbott said in a press release, which also included comments from pastors and bishops praising Abbott for his push to codify legislation that would boost private schools.

Abbott then moved from the traditional pulpit to the bully pulpit, hinting that lawmakers who don’t see things his way could face primary challengers in next year’s spring elections.

“We will have everything teed up in a way where we will be giving voters in a primary a choice,” Abbott said, adding that he will call lawmakers back again if the legislation doesn’t pass.

Early Friday afternoon Abbott posted on social media “NOW is the time for school choice in Texas. To every Texan who supports school choice: join our team. Contact your State Representative and tell them to vote for education freedom for EVERY Texas family.”

But looming in the background is the growing animosity between Lt. Gov. Patrick in the Texas Senate and House Speaker Phelan, who butted heads following Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial and subsequent acquittal. The Texas Newsroom reported this week their stare down could throw a wrench into the gears of school-choice machinery.

“Institutional conflicts have turned personal between the speaker and lieutenant governor, and political divides have become policy differences,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political sciences at the University of Houston, told the Texas Newsroom. That could force Abbott to play the role of referee, he added.

It’s unclear if education funding will be the sole issue lawmakers will be challenged with in October —Abbott has hinted border security and immigration items could also be added to the special session agenda, which only the governor controls.

Abbott has said he wants lawmakers to investigate a community called Colony Ridge in southeast Texas, after Republicans and right-wing media sounded alarm bells over what they claim is a community predominantly occupied by undocumented immigrants. Abbott recently told conservative media that: “We’re trying to put together as much information as possible so that I can add to the special session any issue that needs to be enforced,” the Texas Tribune reported.

An omnibus immigration bill that would have created a new law enforcement unit on the state’s border with Mexico failed to pass in the regular session. As filed, members of the so-called Border Protection Unit, whose chief would be appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, would “arrest, apprehend or detain” people who illegally cross into the United States and “repel” people who attempt to enter the country.

It’s unclear when Abbott will outline what he wants lawmakers to address when they reconvene next month. In his letter to the leaders of both chambers, Abbott said he would issue a formal proclamation before the special session begins.

Copyright 2023 KERA