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In Texas, rural Republicans hold the line against school vouchers

 People gathered to protest school vouchers during a demonstration at the Texas Capitol.
Becky Fogel
/
KUT
People gathered to protest school vouchers during a demonstration at the Texas Capitol.

Florida. Tennessee. Arizona. These are just some of the Republican-led states that have implemented school voucher programs in recent years.

These programs go by many names, be it school choice or education savings accounts, but the basic idea is the same: Allowing families to use public funds to pay private school tuition.

Given the popularity of vouchers in other red states, along with recent pushes by conservatives to expand their availability, you might think Texas could easily be next. But again and again, the state’s Republican majority in the Texas Legislature has failed to secure enough votes to pass any measure that would divert taxpayer dollars from public schools.


And Republicans themselves — particularly those who represent rural parts of Texas — have played a large role in blocking these proposals, including during this year’s regular legislative session.

“Every dollar that we spent on a voucher is going to be a dollar that is taken away from being able to invest in public education,” Rep. Stan Lambert, R-Abilene, told The Texas Newsroom on Monday.

Lambert is one of several rural Republicans who could be key in deciding whether the Texas Legislature passes school vouchers during the state’s current special legislative session, the third this year.

“I'm anxious to start seeing some of the iterations of maybe some different bills than what we saw back in the regular session,” Lambert said. “But I'm still going to have a hard time getting past the fact that I still believe public education is our best option to give all 5.5 million students … all of the tools and all of the resources available at their disposal, which means increasing the basic allotment, increasing the amount of teacher salaries.”

Lambert has always been against school vouchers.

He said his Republican colleagues should focus instead on fully funding schools, and increasing the Basic Allotment — the amount of money the state gives schools per student.

It currently stands at $6,160 and it hasn’t been adjusted since 2019.

“I know the governor has said we're going to fully fund public education. At the same time, we're going to create this new system without any accountability, without any strings attached,” Lambert said. “That just doesn't make good sense to me.”

Public schools play a key role in Texas’ rural communities

According to the Texas Education Agency, the state has about 1,200 school districts. Of those, about 730 — just under 61% — are considered rural or non-metropolitan.

In Texas’ less populated regions, public school districts tend to be the area’s biggest employers. The districts have become the economic anchor and center of their communities.

That reality is a big part of why many Texas Republicans who represent rural areas have never been supportive of school vouchers, leaving them at odds with their pro-voucher Republican colleagues, including Gov. Greg Abbott.

And while Lambert and others have said they want to see additional changes for public education in Texas, Abbott’s call for this special session didn’t include any stipulations that lawmakers take up things like increasing the basic allotment or raising teacher salaries.

Instead, Abbott asked Republicans to support his voucher plan, referred to as “education savings accounts” by the governor.

Selling policy or making threats?

On vouchers, Abbott means business.

At the beginning of this year, the governor named it as a key priority. More recently, Abbott said he’d call lawmakers back to Austin as many times as necessary to get his plan passed. He’s even vowing to get involved in next year’s primaries by supporting challengers to incumbent Republicans who don’t vote his way.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, told The Texas Newsroom that’s not a good way of governing.

“Is that selling the benefits of vouchers? Or is that a threat?” Nichols asked. “It’s a political threat.”

Nichols said the governor cannot win the “idea war” acting like that, adding he has already seen Abbott make good on those threats.

Earlier this year, one of his bills was vetoed by the governor. When Nichols asked why, he said someone from Abbott’s office implied it was because of his anti-school voucher stance.

Abbott’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Nichols said those pushing for school vouchers see it as a solution to issues in big, urban school districts like Houston and Austin.

“I have 100 school districts, 100 school districts, and I can assure you the issues I have — my schools have, are different than those two school districts,” Nichols said.

He said he supports “school choice,” a term used by Republicans to refer to school vouchers, but believes there’s already school choice in the state — if a parent wants to take their kids to another public school, they can. But he doesn’t support school vouchers.

“Most of my constituents, even with an $8,000 discount, the private school is probably so far away, they're going to have to travel 30 or 40 miles to get to a private school,” Nichols said. “And they still won't be able to afford the balance of what's owed.”

Nichols said he thinks school vouchers would only benefit Texas families that can already pay to send their kids to private schools, instead of the students who need them the most.

Nichols and Lambert have said they will vote “no” on school vouchers, even though they know they could face political consequences.

“I've gotten primary opponents before — I beat the last one with a 50% margin,” Nichols said. “If you've got somebody that's going to run in a primary in my district, that's out pushing vouchers, I'll beat them by 50% again — that's not popular in my district.”

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán