“Even the governor’s backing off [of the school choice issue],” said Charles Johnson, executive director of the group Pastors for Children, which “promot[es] social justice for children,” at an April 19 event.
After Abbott rolled out his “Parental Bill of Rights” plan earlier this year, Johnson said, “My phone was lighting up from rural House members [saying] ‘Pastor, take a breath. I just got off the phone with the governor — he ain’t going to push a voucher bill.’”
“Well, we’ll see about that.”
Posted by Corey DeAngelis, the national director for the pro-school choice organization American Federation for Children, the video of Johnson’s comment gained some traction on social media.
After midnight, Abbott chimed in pithily, saying, “1. I don’t know who this person is. 2. I’ve never talked to this person. 3. He and I did not speak as he claims.”
Back in January, at a campaign stop, Abbott exclaimed, “This upcoming session, you’re going to see a stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the State of Texas.”
That has remained the most explicit statement of school choice support from the governor recently. In the past, Abbott has been pronounced with his support for vouchers. In 2017, Abbott said, “School choice is a civil rights issue, and Texas must ensure that no child is ever stuck in a failing school.”
That language is mirrored by Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) statements earlier this year defining the issue as his most important in deciding state-level endorsements.
While Abbott’s January remarks intone some level of support, his endorsements in the Texas House GOP runoffs run counter to that specific issue — supporting two incumbents who are openly against a voucher system and various others who were at one point endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers union staunchly opposed to vouchers.
The issue was nearly nonexistent during the 87th legislative session, with items like election reform, the remedy of the power grid failure, and redistricting swallowing up much of the legislative oxygen.
But the pandemic school closures of the last year and nationwide parental uproar over racial and gender items in school curricula have driven school choice to the forefront.
The Republican Party of Texas (RPT) is focused on school choice more than most other current issues. Matt Rinaldi, RPT chair who served two terms in the Texas House, discussed school choice’s chances next session with DFW radio host Chris Salcedo.
“In the Texas House, there are 35 percent to 40 percent of Republicans who are lukewarm on the school choice issue,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s dead, we’ve passed issues before that haven’t had popular support among Republicans in private. If we get a big push from Governor Abbott, who’s been a school choice advocate in the past, we’ll move those GOP members and get it over the finish line.”
Nearly 88 percent of GOP voters supported the school choice ballot proposition in the March 1 primary. It read, “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.”
Those opposed to a voucher system, often concentrated in rural areas, object to the idea on the grounds that it would remove a parent’s tax dollars from the local school district that would otherwise receive it — whether or not their child attends that school.
Abbott’s opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, has made raising teacher pay and boosting public school funding a central point of his campaign — saying the state’s 2019 pay boost and school funding injection totaling $6.5 billion is short of what’s needed.
Neither legislative chamber included the item in their interim charges, but the issue continues to gain momentum within Republican circles — signaling an intra-party fight come 2023.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.