Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan was elected to the leadership position with the help of a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. However, he is under relentless pressure from the most extreme elements of the Republican Party who have been enabled and empowered by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Public school vouchers have not been very popular with Texans according to polling by UT/Texas Politics Project. Across six years of polling, vouchers never garnered more than 46% popularity. Only a plurality supported it in the last year. And even with the plurality, it’s not a high priority for republicans (it came in fourth) nor with independents (placing seventh) among education-related issues.
But voucher proponents have been playing the long game. The billionaire James Leininger founded the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) in 1989 to push two of his pet causes, one of which was school vouchers.
Leininger was later joined by Texas Billionaires, Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn, who have a goal of moving Texas from a business-friendly state to a more extreme, Christian nationalist state.
Wilks’ and Dunn’s attacks on public schools, including accusations of so-called “critical race theory,” are part of their agenda to undermine trust in public education, according to political experts interviewed by the Texas Observer.
“They really believe that they’ve been given a mandate by God to take dominion over society,” said a former theological ally of theirs, Dorothy Burton.“The goal is to tear up, tear down public education to nothing and rebuild it,” added Burton, “and rebuild it the way God intended education to be.”
This is certainly not the view of the moderate coalition that helped elect Phelan as speaker. Phelan promised he would shepherd bills through the House that have the support of a majority of members, while also assuring lawmakers from the minority party that they would have a meaningful voice. Based on two votes already taken in the House, vouchers do not have majority support in the lower chamber.
Retiring state senator, Kel Seliger of Amarillo, says Dunn and Wilks control over Republican officials has made Austin feel more like the Kremlin in recent years.
“It is a Russian-style oligarchy, pure and simple,” Seliger said. “Really, really wealthy people who are willing to spend a lot of money to get policy made the way they want it — and they get it…”
While Seliger had an extremely conservative voting record in Austin, he eventually broke with the billionaires on private-school vouchers. This was heresy to Dunn and Wilks and the billionaires bankrolled primary opponents against Seliger thereafter.
“That’s the law of the jungle now in Texas,” Seliger said. “The majority of Republican Senate members just dance to whatever tune Tim Dunn wants to play.”
Former Republican Sen. Kel Seliger may have summed it up best in regard to the influence of these far-right Christian nationalists: “You’re either owned, or you’re not owned.”
We’ll soon know whether Phelan is owned or not owned.