EducationElections 2022Gov. Abbott’s School Choice Rhetoric Clashes With His Runoff Endorsements, Legislature’s Priorities

A few years of broad displeasure with the public education system has breathed new life into the prospect of school choice legislation in Texas ahead of the 2023 session.
April 6, 2022
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“This upcoming session, you’re going to see a stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice [than ever in Texas history],” Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed at a January campaign stop.

The political wave of parental vexation sweeping across the country is directing tremors to Texas. School coronavirus closures and policy laid a tinderbox of displeasure with the education status quo over the last couple of years. Then, partially ignited by the uproar in Loudoun County, Virginia over various controversies about its policies and curriculum that then bled into Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory, it’s become a featured theme in Texas, with similar incidents occurring here.

Parental rebukes of decisions by school districts occurred when incumbents in the Carroll, Cypress-Fairbanks, and Houston ISDs all lost.

Angry parents have proven to be a political force, and state officials and candidates recognize it.

Abbott’s declaration indicates there is more appetite for school choice legislation — most often in the form of vouchers that allow parents to take their children and tax dollars to schools outside their zip code assignment.

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The governor introduced his proposed “Parental Bill of Rights” which imitates and builds upon the parental rights already in the Texas Education Code. He also proposes to amend the Texas Constitution with policies that would make repeal by the legislature more difficult.

But the plan does not include a voucher system. Neither do the House or Senate interim charges, which provide a roadmap for the bodies’ respective priorities next session.

Additionally, Abbott has waded into GOP House runoffs endorsing candidates in various races, some of whom don’t line up directly with his school choice pronouncement.

Rep. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford), facing a runoff against activist and donor Mike Olcott, was the lone incumbent endorsed by Abbott in this wave. On Sunday, Rogers published a statement denouncing a school voucher program in the Brownwood News.

“Under the guise of promoting choice,” he says, “proposed ‘school voucher’ programs are a trojan horse attempt to privatize Texas’ education system, and drain our already underfunded public education of necessary resources for millions of children.”

He adds, “Proponents of this system try to claim that children are ‘trapped in the public education system they were raised in.’”

“This is, quite frankly, a lie. Texas already has one of the most robust ‘school choice’ systems for parents in the nation. Between open-enrollment public schools, private schools, charter schools, homeschools, and online learning, parents have plenty of available options to place their child wherever they see fit.”

While options do exist, school choice advocates argue that parents who choose to take their children elsewhere must pay for that expense on top of already paying their local ISD property taxes — which are the largest portion of their tax bill.

They contend that for those without that extra income, it’s infeasible to move their child out of the situation.

Opponents of a voucher system, often focused in rural communities like the ones Rogers represents, counter that vouchers used to take a student and their associated tax dollars elsewhere would remove funding that otherwise would go to that local school district.

This fight within the Republican Party and its collection of officials is not new. School choice has been in the Texas GOP platform for years, but legislation to establish it faltered quickly in both of the Republican-controlled chambers during the 87th legislative session.

On top of that, Rogers has been endorsed by the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union opposed to voucher programs.

Another of Abbott’s endorsed candidates, Justin Berry — an Austin police officer who is running for House District 19 against former Austin City Councilwoman Ellen Troxclair — was also endorsed by AFT, but it was declined and is no longer on the union’s website.

Like Berry, former New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel, running for HD 73 versus Carrie Isaac, was similarly endorsed by Abbott and AFT, but the endorsement no longer appears on the organization’s website.

Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), one of the four GOP incumbents pushed to a runoff like Rogers, was not among those endorsed by AFT. But in 2020, Kacal indicated he wouldn’t support a voucher program, telling the Waco Tribune, “From Day One, I’ve said, vouchers — I’m not for vouchers. Private vouchers are not the magic wand and will not fix the system.”

There will be a litany of other school-related items on the legislature’s agenda. These likely include curriculum-focused changes like a Texas version of Florida’s bill prohibiting the discussion of sex and sexual topics with students in kindergarten through third grade; functional factors like expansion and solidification of parent’s roles in their child’s education; and funding-focused ones like a potential elimination of the school district Maintenance & Operations rate, the largest portion of the ISD tax rate.

Meanwhile, Abbott’s opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, is running heavily on raising teacher pay — something approved in the legislature’s 2019 school finance injection but which O’Rourke says is lacking.

But the chances of any voucher program’s passage rests on the GOP-controlled legislature and its position on the governor’s hierarchy of legislative priorities.

Similar bills have been making their way through the legislatures of other states such as Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is 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.