With the regular 88th Texas Legislative session and two special sessions under their belts, members of the Texas Legislature are now bracing for a potential third special session in October – this one involving public school funding and the controversial subject of private school vouchers.
Vouchers – often referred to as “school choice” by proponents – are grants of public taxpayer funds to private entities (parents, schools, scholarship programs, etc.) to fund education at a private school. The Coalition for Public Schools, composed of a large number of education advocacy organizations, defines a voucher as “Anything that diverts public funds (through a tax credit, rebate, scholarship or any other means) to directly or indirectly subsidize a private education…”
The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott supports vouchers and has made it a priority for his legislative platform. During the regular legislative session in the Spring of this year, Abbott took to the road stumping for vouchers – holding meetings in a number of private, religious schools to make his case. In many of these meetings Abbott used his gubernatorial heft to compel Texas House members opposed to vouchers to attend. One example of this was when Abbott compelled State Representative John Raney (R-Bryan) to attend a meeting he held at Brazos Christian School in Bryan, Texas. Abbott pontificated about vouchers while Raney sat uncomfortably to the side, not allowed to speak. Raney has consistently voted against vouchers during his decade long tenure in the Texas House. He opposed them each time they came up in the 88th legislative session – regardless of his presence at Abbott’s meeting in early March.
Despite Abbott’s repeated insistence that Texans want vouchers, most Texas House members and their constituents tell a different story. During the 88th regular session, vouchers were pushed several times with the majority of Texas House members pushing back each time. In one such episode, House Public Education Committee Chairman Brad Buckley (R-Salado) tried to push a hastily drawn version of a voucher bill (Senate Bill 8) through to a vote without a committee hearing. After an impassioned speech by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd) calling the move “backroom shady dealings”, House members voted 65-76 against allowing Buckley to circumvent the process and vote on the bill. Procedural set-asides are a normal part of the legislature, so this amounted to a clear vote of refusal of vouchers by the Texas House.
In May of this year, 24 Republican members of the Texas House joined with Democrats to push through the Herrero Amendment to the budget. The amendment essentially prohibited public funds from being used to pay for private and religious schools. These 24 Republicans soon became known as “the 24” – composed of mostly rural Republicans whose communities eschew vouchers. Rather than capitulate to pressure from the Governor to change their position to support or be neutral on vouchers, the group coalesced and are rumored to be 30 strong now.
Many education advocates believe that Abbott is losing ground in his efforts to get a voucher passed. According to Rev. Charles Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children, “If Abbott calls a special session to get a voucher program, we’ve been told by a lot of House members that the opposition to a voucher program will increase. This has already been quite an embarrassment for Abbott. Now, he wants to call the legislature back into session, after what they’ve been through these past 140 days, just to once again vote on something that they have defeated time after time after time for the last 28 years.”
Many rural Texas House members tend to agree with Johnson. State Representative Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) appeared to oppose vouchers in his recent remarks to the Panola County Republican Women’s group in Carthage, Texas. “I think the governor has been, and I’ll use a charitable description, has been forceful in his continued demand for universal vouchers,” Clardy said. “Some will call it school choice. I do not view it that way at all. It’s not school choice, it’s the school’s choice — and therein lies the problem.” Clardy indicated that he had voted against vouchers in the past and that, while he will listen to any proposal, is prepared to vote against them in the future.
Still, the Governor persists on the issue of vouchers, citing polling that the majority of Texans are in favor of the scheme, but University of Texas professor David DeMatthews disagrees. DeMatthews, an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy, believes the polling data being used may be skewed and misrepresent the true priorities of Texans. He cites more recent polling data that the number one priority of Texans regarding schools is school safety, teacher pay, and curriculum (73%) while private school vouchers are only prioritized by 8% of those polled.
With Texans focused on the need for our schools to be safe, pay our teachers adequately, and shore up any curriculum standards, it seems confusing to expect the legislature to focus on providing state funding for private schools through a voucher program. A funding bill that addressed many of these issues (HB100) was sponsored by State Representative Ken King (R-Canadian) but failed at the last minute due to a voucher being attached to it. King, an avid supporter of public schools and opponent of vouchers, allowed the bill to fail rather than see Texas public schools privatized.
Many public-school advocates see the Governor’s push for vouchers as part of a larger attack on public schools and in particular teachers. The only thing standing between them and the privatization of their schools, adequate funding, and adequate pay is the vote of the Texas House. Monty Exter, Governmental Relations Director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) says that members votes are critical to teachers in his organization and that the organization has expectations of members relating to public education and their role as lawmakers.
“We expect members to file bills that would provide education funding and an educator pay raise without a voucher”, Exter said. “We expect them to vote in favor of amendments that provide education funding and an educator pay raise without a voucher. We expect them to vote in favor of bills that provide education funding and an educator pay raise without a voucher. And, we absolutely expect them to vote against any bill or amendment that does contain a voucher. If they, as our representative, do those things and the Gov., Lt. Gov. and pro-voucher minority refuse to pass legislation that provides for increased education funding and an educator pay raise without a voucher anyway, they still will have earned our support.”
Earlier this Summer, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Nederland) created the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment. The committee, chaired by Rep. Buckley, held two days of invited testimony in July and are set to release a report with recommendations within the next week with an August 11 deadline looming. Regardless of whether the report recommends a voucher plan to be considered, advocates like Exter and others expect members to vote against vouchers with no deal to be cut for other considerations like teacher pay-raise or increased funding.
“We are the largest group of public-school advocates in the state”, said Charles Luke, the Coordinator for the Coalition for Public Schools, “and our members have fought vouchers since we formed in 1995. It looks like vouchers will fail again despite the concerted all-out push for them. We’ve never cut a deal for vouchers in the past and I don’t anticipate our members will this time. We aren’t about to give up the hill when we are winning the battle.”
With rank-and-file Texas House members standing strongly against vouchers regardless of the outcome of the report and the Governor’s insistence it looks like Luke might be right. As one house member remarked, “My constituents are more important to me than the Governor’s wishes. Besides, he only threatens us and never provides any incentive. He’s all stick and no carrot.”