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Analysis: Texas House Democrats Can Use Caucus Committee To Change Messaging On Vouchers

Democrats in the Texas government have been the minority party since the 1990s. Often, they have to get creative to have their voices heard over the din of Republican supremacy. The latest gambit? A special caucus committee on the biggest issue still left in the current legislative agenda, education.

On Monday, the Texas House Democratic Caucus formed the Special Committee on Education. It will be chaired by James Talarico (D-Austin) and Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), both of whom sit on the regular House Committee on Public Education. Alma Allen (D-Houston), who is vice chair of the regular committee, will also serve.

A caucus committee itself has no ability to draft or recommend legislation. Instead, it allows the members to coordinate on messaging and lobbying for bills. However, with three of the five Democratic members of the regular committee in the caucus committee, it’s fair to say that the caucus will have its voice heard.

It’s telling who else the Democrats have appointed to the caucus committee. Gene Wu (D-Houston) is a media firebrand who has consistently reached Texans through the internet in ways most politicians can’t. His intense study of online right-wing radicalization, as well as his penchant for outreach, makes him a powerful voice. Through the caucus committee, he gets a say in the contentious school voucher issue.

That may be the key to holding the line on vouchers. Governor Greg Abbott’s plan to have taxpayer money funneled to private, expensive, and mostly religious schools has a very well-funded publicity campaign behind it. Abbott himself toured the state earlier this year to promote it.

The members of the caucus committee generally hail from Texas’s large and diverse cities. The current voucher fight has mainly been between suburban and urban Republicans and their rural counterparts. The latter oppose vouchers because they will almost certainly drain resources from their local schools, which are often the community’s biggest employers and social hub.

This has left the state’s largest districts completely out of the equation. Almost all efforts to push vouchers have been aimed at threatening or convincing rural Republicans, whether it’s Ted Cruz promising to interfere with primaries to Abbott’s allies offering two-year stipends to rural schools that lose students. Democrats are relegated to the sidelines.

The conversation, then, is almost completely how this will affect rural, white Texans rather than the growing minority-majority. While the caucus committee can’t hold hearings that move legislation along, they can speak up. It can take back rhetorical ground lost in the big Republican intra-party fight.

The fight over school vouchers is large, loud, and contentious. Far-right conservative groups have spent years framing the issue as one of choice rather than a backlash against diversity and acceptance in public schools. The caucus committee can keep that point from being completely ceded to Texas Republicans as they argue over rural schools. While those schools are just as important as the urban and suburban ones, they should not wholly dominate the conversation. The caucus committee can prevent that from happening. 

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.

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