Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing school vouchers. Public education advocates are pushing back.
Danelle Schwertner drove three and a half hours from her home in West Texas to join other school voucher opponents for a demonstration at the Texas Capitol on Saturday.
Schwertner, vice president of the Miles ISD school board, said a small, rural district like hers has a lot to lose if the Legislature approves a program that allows families to use taxpayer money to pay for private schools, including religious ones.
“We never have all the resources we need. We’re a very small school [district]. We do not have a large tax base where we’re at. We don’t have industry,” she said. “So we need all the funding we can get, and we do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Schwertner and other public education advocates gathered for the “Boot Vouchers” rally, just two days before the third special legislative session of the year got underway.
Homemade signs dotted the crowd. One, mimicking a Tinder profile, called on people to reject and “swipe left” on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s push to launch a voucher program in Texas.
Abbott called state lawmakers back to Austin to pass legislation on four priorities: border security, public safety, ending COVID restrictions and making education savings accounts available to all Texas students. Education savings accounts are a type of voucher.
“Together, we will chart a brighter future for all Texas children by empowering parents to choose the best education option for their child,” Abbott said in a statement announcing the session.
But Nichole Abshire, who taught in public schools for 10 years, does not anticipate a brighter future if Texas introduces school vouchers.
“I think the push for vouchers will destroy public education as we know it,” she said. “I think we’re fortunate that we don’t have them here in Texas and we have a real shot at keeping them out.”
A coalition of rural Republicans and Democrats in the Texas House historically have blocked efforts to pass school voucher legislation in the state. That happened again during the regular legislative session earlier this year. GOP state Rep. Ken King allowed his school finance bill to die after Republican senators tacked on a voucher program in a last-ditch effort to get this type of legislation to the governor.
“I am truly sorry HB 100 did not pass,” King said in a statement back in May. “But in the end I believe students, teachers, and schools are better off with current law than they would be if we accept what the Senate is offering.”
High cost of vouchers
Gov. Abbott has claimed Texas can have school vouchers and also fully fund public schools. But educators and advocates in the Austin area aren’t buying it, in part because the Legislature has not raised the minimum amount of per student funding, known as the basic allotment, since 2019.
Bob Popinski is senior director of policy at Raise Your Hand Texas, a group that opposes school vouchers. He said Texas would need to increase the basic allotment, which is currently $6,160, by $1,100 just to make up for inflation.
"In addition to that, we're $4,000 below the national average on per student funding," he said. "So, we have a long way to go when it comes to funding our public schools."
Austin ISD School Board President Arati Singh blasted the governor's effort to create a voucher program, while funding for public schools is largely stagnant.
“How absolutely irresponsible is it for us to drain and starve our public education system right now, just as artificial intelligence and other technologies are exploding and we need a well-educated workforce more than ever,” she told the crowd at Saturday's rally. “It makes no sense to me.”
Austin ISD, like so many districts throughout Texas, adopted a deficit budget this year because state funding isn’t keeping up with inflation. The district is going even deeper into debt to comply with a new state law that requires districts to have at least one armed officer at every school.
Bruce Gearing, superintendent of Leander ISD, said school vouchers will “absolutely” affect funding for Texas public schools.
“You can look to every other state that has done this across the nation and see how they started and where they are now,” he told KUT ahead of the rally.
Gearing pointed to Arizona’s increasingly expensive school voucher program. Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said in a memo in July that vouchers may cost taxpayers more than $943 million in 2024, potentially resulting in a budget shortfall for the state.
Gearing said he opposes vouchers in any form, especially as state funding for public education remains largely stagnant and private schools aren’t subject to the same standardized tests or other state oversight.
“We are going to advocate very strongly with our legislators and with any who will listen to strongly oppose any type of voucher, any type of scheme that will send public dollars to private schools,” he said.
Where do Texans stand on vouchers?
Figuring out whether Texans support this type of program can be tricky because some polling shows school vouchers are not a top priority for voters in the state. Take a survey the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project conducted in August. Pollsters asked voters how important it was for state lawmakers to tackle a variety of educational issues in the upcoming special session.
Overall, only 26% said vouchers, educational savings accounts or other “school choice” legislation was extremely important.
“If you break that down by party, what is probably most interesting is that while school choice legislation finishes at the bottom of the list of priorities for both Democrats and Texans overall, it doesn’t do much better among Republicans,” Texas Politics Project Director James Henson said. “It does better, but it finishes in the middle of the pack.”
Thirty-four percent of Republicans said they considered voucher-type programs extremely important. That figure was 17% for Democrats.
Henson also pointed out that the way voters are asked about vouchers does have some impact on the level of support. When asking voters — "Do you support or oppose establishing a voucher, educational savings account (ESA), or other “school choice” program in Texas?" — 29% of respondents strongly supported it and 18% strongly opposed.
But when asked — "Do you support or oppose redirecting state tax revenue to help parents pay for some of the cost of sending their children to private or parochial schools?" — strong support dropped to 21% and those who strongly opposed it increased to 29%.
“There’s a reason that advocates of vouchers or educational savings programs have chosen the term ‘school choice’ as their term of art for describing these programs,” he said. “The idea of choice generally polls pretty well and doesn’t have a lot of negative associations.”
Henson said as soon as you start talking about tax revenue, which has a negative association, support goes down.
“You can make the argument that what you are talking about here is a school choice program," he said. "You can also argue if you don’t tell people how you’re going to pay for it, you’re not giving them a complete version of what’s going on."
Ultimately, Henson and his colleague Joshua Blank find vouchers don’t have mass appeal.
“Vouchers are a boutique issue, buoyed by a reasonably receptive audience, primarily Republicans, joined by a non-trivial minority of Democrats likely wearied by the impact of the pandemic on the practice and politics of public education, or by sustained local failures,” they wrote in a Oct. 6 post. “But the polish of public demand for vouchers that advocates apply to the issue isn’t evident in the polling.”
The governor's rhetoric
While polling does not indicate widespread support for school vouchers in Texas, three UT/Texas Politics Project polls conducted over the last 18 months find less than a third of GOP voters held favorable views of K-12 public schools. Abbott’s push for school vouchers plays into that dissatisfaction.
“Our schools are for education, not indoctrination,” Abbott said during his State of the State address in January. “Schools should not be pushing a ‘woke’ agenda period.”
But David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the UT College of Education, said Abbott’s criticism of public schools is fairly new.
"And they’re his public schools," he said, "so the question should be to the governor is if schools are indoctrinating children as he’s claiming, then he’s been asleep at the wheel for a large segment of his career."
DeMatthews said it’s disappointing that anyone in statewide office would consistently attack public schools. He added the attacks are part of a nationwide push to privatize education. Political donors, such as former U.S. Education SecretaryBetsy DeVos and West Texas billionaires are among those pushing that agenda.
DeMatthews said Abbott is making the case for vouchers by criticizing public schools because studies show vouchers do not improve student achievement.
“And in the cases when kids return to the public schools, their test scores actually go back up," he said.
Previous studies of these types of programs in states such as Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana have found, in general, students who use vouchers to go to private school do not perform as well on tests as their counterparts in public schools.
Popinski said there are a few things Texans can expect if the Legislature approves school vouchers.
"They can expect that there [will] not be enough high quality seats in our private schools," he said. "Texans can expect to have private school tuition increase like they've seen in other states once a voucher program has been enacted. And Texans can expect student achievement and student progress to be mixed at best."
And, although Abbott's special session agenda does not include a call to raise public education funding, the chair of the Senate Education Committee filed legislation Monday to increase per student funding and teacher pay.
Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton's proposal includes $975 million for basic allotment increases, but that still does not make up for inflation since it was last raised.
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