Far-right Texas Republicans continue to push an unpopular school voucher program in the state legislature, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Despite his promise to “bracket out” rural schools (and subsequent backpedaling), the program would still hurt those districts.
For the past several years, far-right Republicans have championed vouchers as a way to divert tax funds from public schools into private, mostly religious, institutions. The plan is driven by oil moguls like Tim Dunn, Farris Wilks, and their families, who have become the most powerful forces in Texas conservative political fundraising. In addition, much of the backlash against “critical race theory” and the inclusion of LGBT content in school libraries is part of a long history of using culture wars to dismantle the public school system.
Vouchers are unpopular with rural Republicans, who recognize that public schools are often the lifeblood of communities. Rural students also have few or no options for private schooling in their area, meaning a voucher system would be virtually worthless to them. With rural conservative support an important part of Republicans’ total control of the state, Patrick has tried to mollify those districts with promises that they won’t be affected.
The Texas State Teachers Association calls this a “con.”
“Patrick is trying to con his rural supporters by promising that small, rural schools will be excluded from any voucher program,” reads a statement from November. “That apparently means that students in rural districts would be excluded from receiving any vouchers or tax-credit scholarships from any program the Legislature may enact. But Patrick’s promise ignores the major problem that concerns his rural constituents: Their underfunded school districts would still lose valuable tax dollars to pay for the voucher program.”
The Texas public school network is a vast, interconnected bureaucracy that serves 5.9 million students and employs around 400,000 people. The system is already desperate for more funding, particularly for lagging teacher salaries that has caused a mass exodus from the profession.
Funding for public schools is based on attendance, meaning that any families that use the voucher system would still be removing around $6,000 from schools per student. The state legislature is currently balking at any major change to the way school funding is allotted, so a widespread voucher system would have a devastating impact.
The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers is another professional group who claim Patrick’s promise to the rural districts is nonsense.
“It is unclear how Patrick would ‘bracket out’ rural school districts,” they said in a November statement. “The Texas public school finance system is entirely interconnected, so it is impossible to carve out rural public schools from the effects of private school vouchers. State funding for public schools comes from a variety of sources, primarily the Permanent School Fund, but the overall budget is as simple as a family budget. If some money is sent to private schools, it will negatively affect the state’s ability to fund public schools across the state. In the past, Patrick has wholeheartedly supported vouchers, with no mention of ‘brackets’ or caveats. In May of this year, Patrick stated he was ‘in full support’ of so-called ‘school choice’ schemes.”
Patrick’s promises are in direct opposition of both his own messaging elsewhere and the goals of the donors who control much of conservative Texas politics. The school voucher program would still hurt rural districts, even if the legislature did come up with some scheme to exempt them from the worst of the effects.