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Texas private school voucher push primed by culture wars, pandemic

Escalating education culture wars and a focus on parental rights during the ongoing pandemic may have created an opening for school voucher-like legislation to gain momentum in the historically hesitant Texas Legislature.

Voucher proposals have had a tough road in Texas, meeting tremendous opposition in the House from a coalition of urban Democrats and rural Republicans who don’t want to funnel state money away from public schools.

But shifting political winds could change that.

“The conditions are better now than they’ve ever been,” said Patrick Wolf, a University of Arkansas education policy professor who studies school choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott came out publicly Monday night in support of a voucher program that would allow families to use public funds to attend private schools, a development that public school advocates have been bracing for in recent months as Republicans funneled their angst over so-called critical race theory into calls for more “parental empowerment.”

Momentum could be building on several fronts, Wolf said, noting that the pandemic triggered frustration and disappointment in public schools for some parents. It’s also likely going to be a political calculation for some lawmakers who could be concerned about a primary challenge or internal pressure from conservative colleagues.

“Private school choice and parental influence in education is becoming more of a litmus test of Republicanism than it was in the past,” he said.

For some, Abbott’s comments are his latest attempt to shore up a conservative base heading into November’s gubernatorial election against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke – or even a potential presidential run.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been laying the groundwork toward this fight for months, including by launching a Parental Empowerment tour around the state, labeling expanded school choice a top priority for the 2023 legislative session.

Officials at the conservative group see a perception shift after two years of families having a more direct view into their children’s public school classrooms, such as during remote lessons held because of the pandemic.

“That has changed the conversation substantially,” said Michael Barba, the group’s K-12 policy director. “If they don’t get transparency, if their kids aren’t being prepared for success through quality education, if they’re not being treated respectfully, they need to have a choice about where to send their child to get those things for their education.”

Private school choice initiatives come in a variety of forms including vouchers, which are state funds that pay for students to attend private schools; scholarship tax credits; and education savings accounts. It’s not immediately clear what kind of proposal could gain momentum in Texas.

As of 2019, 27 states and the District of Columbia had enacted some kind of policy designed to expand access to private education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Traditionally in Texas, rural Republicans tend to oppose the initiatives because students in their areas often lack alternatives to public schools. Public education advocates also argue vouchers funnel away from public schools, which serve more than 5 million children.

Abbott and others are championing red-meat issues ahead of the next election. Backlash against so-called critical race theory and library books fueled calls for expanded parental rights. Under that umbrella, the governor is touting his support for school choice.

Governor Greg Abbott signs a cardboard that refers to his Parental Bill of Rights at...

“Empowering parents means giving them the choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student,” Abbott said at a rally in San Antonio.

During the 2017 session, Abbott pledged similar support, saying he would sign any school choice legislation that crossed his desk.

The majority of the House – including 115 members from both parties – voted in support of an amendment last session that would have prohibited the use of public funds for school choice programs.

Jeremy Newman, the deputy director of the Texas Home School Coalition, said in response to Abbott’s comments that “families have the God-given right to direct their child’s education.”

“Texas has millions of diverse students each with a diverse set of needs,” Newman said. “The only way to meet those needs is with a diverse set of solutions. Empowering parents to direct their child’s education is the surest way to achieve that.”

A new group, Liberty For The Kids, recently formed around the issue of empowering parents and pushing school choice. Among its leaders is Rod Paige, a former US Secretary of Education and Houston ISD Superintendent.

But others believe voucher initiatives actually take away power from parents.

Andrea Chevalier, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, described voucher plans as the antithesis of parental empowerment, saying private institutions don’t have to follow state law that guarantees parental rights in schools.

She is still confident that the House will remain an obstacle to voucher initiatives but worries about the political pressure some candidates face.

“It’s going to be harder for those legislators who do typically create a block for vouchers because they’re going to be facing that mounting pressure from people in their party – especially Republicans, people in their party who are further to the right,” she said.

Zeph Capo, the president of the teacher union Texas American Federation of Teachers, said that a voucher push would be antithetical with the idea of ​​local control. It would pull resources away from schools in parts of the state where public support for vouchers isn’t strong, he said, such as many rural areas that lack viable private school options.

“This does nothing but take away from rural kids to give a tax break for those in the cities – most of whom can already afford [private school] – or it would create more cottage industries to make money off the backs of children,” Capo said. “Neither is a good choice.”

Second-grader Jillian Evans and third-grader Kelvin Walker sing during a Valentine's Day...

Pressure had been mounting on Abbott to come out publicly in support of vouchers.

Earlier this year, Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, the founder and executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, said rural House members had reassured him that Abbott wouldn’t push a voucher bill.

“We are mystified why Gov. Abbott, a self-confessed limited government official, wishes to expand the authority of the State of Texas to barge into our church schools,” Johnson said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are particularly disappointed that Gov. Abbott would betray our rural Republican House friends, who have few private schools in their rural districts, with a voucher campaign.”

Johnson called Abbott’s recent announcement “nothing more than political pandering to his fringe, anti-public base.”

The governor is also feeling pressure from members of his own party.

Over the past year, Abbott and US Sen. Ted Cruz have endorsed Republican candidates on opposite sides of the issue in primary races for the Texas House. Cruz, a long-standing supporter of having tax dollars follows students to other educational entities, tweeted last week that “school choice is the Civil Rights issue of the 21st century.”

Capo criticized Abbott as “spending a lot of time chasing around [Florida Governor] Ron DeSantis,” in an attempt to position himself as a possible Republican presidential candidate.

Barba noted that Florida’s approach to school choice is a “key option.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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