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“Our Public School System is Our Town”: Why This Rural Republican is Voting Against School Vouchers

Gary VanDeaver is a hard no on school vouchers.

Among his Republican peers in the Texas Legislature, it’s an awkward position to take. He and a couple dozen other House Republicans representing rural districts are under intense political pressure within their party as they consider whether to join with Democrats to block the latest attempt to pass a voucher bill. Their opposition could lead to yet another special session by Gov. Greg Abbott who is hell-bent on passing such a program.

VanDeaver and the other Republican holdouts will be attacked in their primaries for reelection over the issue.

Regardless, it’s a clear choice for VanDeaver. Because, as he and many education leaders in his district see it, vouchers pose a serious threat to the long-term financial health of his district’s school systems without providing a meaningful benefit to his constituents.

Take, for example, the fact that there’s only five accredited private schools in his district, which spans from Texarkana to Paris, and all but one are concentrated on the district’s eastern edge. At least one of those schools said they’re already at capacity.

On Friday, the House is expected to take up House Bill 1, a school finance bill that also authorizes education savings accounts, a voucher proposal that would allocate $10,500 per year per student to be used for private school education and up $1,000 for homeschoolers. It would become the first time in recent memory that the House, which has historically been against vouchers, will take a vote on the issue. Earlier this week, the bill was advanced out of committee with VanDeaver’s support. He said he believed the issue deserved to be debated by the entire House.

But ultimately, VanDeaver told The Texas Tribune he wouldn’t support the bill as currently written because of the voucher provision.

“I’m just philosophically not in favor of vouchers primarily because of the district I represent,” VanDeaver said.

“How do you sustain it?”

VanDeaver’s hometown is New Boston, about 150 miles northeast of Dallas, where the independent school district of about 1,200 students is the bedrock of employment and community.

He used to be the superintendent of the school district between 2005 and 2014.

Today, Superintendent Brian Bobbitt said his teachers haven’t gotten a raise since 2019 and the schools operating costs are up. Yet he’s adamant that VanDeaver vote no on the House voucher bill, even though it would also increase school funding.

“Do we need more money? Absolutely, we do,” Bobbitt said. “But will that short-term solution open up a long term problem that is going to have a huge impact on public education in Texas in the future?”

Both Bobbitt and VanDeaver cite other voucher states, such as Arizona, that started with a small voucher program of about ​​150 students that has ballooned to over 60,000 and has Arizona officials estimating it could cost a billion dollars to keep operating.

“One of the bigger questions that we have is how do you sustain it?” Bobbitt said. “That money is going to be coming from a pot of money that is now not going to be used for public education.”

If HB 1 were to pass as proposed, and 1% of students in VanDeaver’s school districts were awarded vouchers, his school districts would lose a combined $3.5 million, as Texas schools are funded per student attendance, according to an analysis from Every Texan, a left-leaning nonprofit think tank. Those losses increase to $17.5 million if 5% of students take the vouchers in his district, which is unlikely in the near-term given lack of private school capacity.

VanDeaver’s district includes 32 school districts with about 44,250 students enrolled in public schools.

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But, under the funding increases in HB 1, VanDeaver’s district could gain up to $49 million for the public school districts.

Brandon Dennard, Red Lick Independent School District superintendent, said despite that promise of a cash infusion, last month he and about 20 other superintendents in VanDeaver’s district told the representative that he should vote against vouchers.

“If you’ve had to go into a fourth special session, the people have already answered,” Dennard said, noting that two previous voucher proposals failed to pass in the regular and third special session. “But Abbott just keeps trying to push it.”

One of VanDeaver’s biggest concerns is if the program continues to grow and Texas finds itself in an economic downturn like in 2008, lawmakers may have to choose between maintaining a voucher program or cutting school funding.

“It would be extremely difficult to cut a student’s [education savings accounts],” he said. “It would be much easier to lower the basic allotment because that way you’re not affecting an individual student. That’s probably one of the few ways that you can really make a significant impact on the state budget.”

“Lifeblood of the community”

New Boston’s school district employs over 50% of the community’s workforce, Bobbitt said. It’s a place for education, but it also hosts some of the biggest community events such as football games, the annual fall festival and family events for Veterans Day.

So a threat to the public school system amounts to a threat to their way of life.

“We are the lifeblood of the community,” Bobbitt said.

Niecy Vargas was born and raised in New Boston where she attended school and now has a daughter of her own in the district. Her parents attended the same schools. For her, it’s a sense of pride that she gets to see her daughter walk the same halls that she and her parents used to walk.

Vargas said she is against school vouchers because it takes aim at the sense of community that is integral to the fabric of rural Texas. During the good and the bad times, New Boston residents and the school district take care of each other. She believes without the long-term success of the school district, there might not be a New Boston.

“Our public school system is our town,” she said. “[Vouchers] would create all types of division — a racial divide, a social status divide, monetary divide as well as academic and extracurricular division.”

While some Republicans in the House and Senate champion school vouchers as parental empowerment and choice, Bobbitt said he doesn’t expect more private schools to pop up in the New Boston area because the public schools have such a strong grip on the community.

Similarly, VanDeaver said there is a multi-generational stronghold among districts like his, which isn’t necessarily the case in Texas’ more suburban and urban communities.

“When I was in New Boston, I was the superintendent of students of whom I taught their parents; and their grandparents went to that school as well,” he said. “That’s something that it’s hard to really quantify and somebody who doesn’t live that, I think it’s hard for them to understand.”

But voting against vouchers could come at a cost. The House legislation is currently tied to increases in school funding and teacher pay raises, and Abbott has signaled he would oppose any public school funding measure that didn’t include vouchers.

Dennard and Bobbit said it’s been years since their staff had raises and the only reason they’ve been able to combat inflation in their budgets is because of the federal government’s COVID-19-era funding that is drying up.

Despite their increasing costs they say they still want VanDeaver to stand against the vouchers bill.

“If you’re going to tie funding to school vouchers, then you can keep your money,” Dennard said. “And this is coming from a superintendent that almost had to pass a deficit budget.”

Private schools

House District 1, with a population of roughly 195,000 people, has just five private schools across its five counties, according to the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission. Four are in Texarkana on the district’s eastern edge and the remaining one, Trinity Christian Academy, is over 90 miles away in Paris.

Carey Malone, the director of Trinity Christian Academy, expressed support for school vouchers in an interview but said he is “not sure [the legislation] would have much impact on us.” With 208 students in prekindergarten and kindergarten through 12th grade, the school limits class sizes to 12 students through second grade, 15 for third through sixth grades, and 20 for the rest.

“We get a significant number of inquiries every month, but we’re pretty much at capacity in our elementary schools,” Malone said.

He said the school is not currently interested in expanding to accommodate more students because most of its buildings are relatively new and it could be hard to find more teachers. The school already faces competition for its teachers, who are mostly retired public school educators using the job to supplement their state retirement system payments. Public schools, facing their own teacher shortages, are trying to lure them back with more pay, Malone said.

Tuition at Trinity Christian Academy is $5,250 a year for a family’s first student — well below the $10,500 that HB 1 would give parents annually for private school costs.

Darbie Safford is the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Tyler, which includes the five counties in VanDeaver’s district. She said the diocese does not have any schools in the district, but it has “quite a few parishes” there that could consider opening schools if HB 1 passes.

“Right now a lot of parishes are really reluctant to start Catholic schools because of the finances,” Safford said. “Whereas if they knew they had a source of income,” she added, they would be more interested.”

She noted the diocese recently opened a school in Canton — midway between Dallas and Tyler — and the school, Holy Family Academy, is “hoping this bill will pass and they’ll be able to serve a broader part of the population.”

“The fact that [the legislation] was on the horizon made it more feasible to consider opening,” Safford said.

Both Malone and Safford were well-versed in the school voucher debate unfolding in Austin. Malone noted he previously worked in public education for 30 years and felt there was “a lot of fear mongering going on” about the impact vouchers could have on public schools.

Safford disputed the idea that vouchers would just further benefit families that are already wealthy enough to send their kids to private schools. She noted that at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Longview, a majority of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. K-12 tuition there ranges from $7,600 to $9,400, but Safford said there is a financial aid program that allows parents to apply to receive up to 40% off.

“We’re not talking about parents who just want a break on their taxes,” she said. “We’re talking about people who are really struggling to get by who are coming to us, asking for help because they want to be able to provide the best for their kids.”

As for VanDeaver, Malone acknowledged they do not see eye-to-eye on school vouchers and so “we kind of look further down the road” for elected officials to work with.

A primary threat

VanDeaver’s district is blood-red. President Donald Trump would have won it by 50 percentage points in 2020 — it was redrawn in 2021 — and Abbott carried it by 60 points last year.

Abbott has promised to get involved in the primaries targeting Republican holdouts. VanDeaver said he is not worried about the threats by Abbott and pro-voucher groups to target his reelection because he does not hear his voters asking for vouchers.

But in the 2022 Republican primary, 87% of voters approved a pro-voucher ballot proposition in VanDeaver’s district, similar to its support among Republican primary voters statewide. The proposition said “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.”

VanDeaver has not had a close primary since he first won the seat in 2014, defeating then-incumbent George Lavender in the primary. Lavender sought to reclaim the seat in 2016 and 2022, but VanDeaver beat him by double digits each time.

VanDeaver already has two primary challengers for next year: Dale Huls and Scott Hommel. Huls is a longtime GOP activist from De Kalb who says he “strongly advocate[s] for parental rights and educational freedom.” Hommel is the chair of the Lamar County GOP, and his website says he supports “school choice and the protection of public school teachers.”

A third Republican, Chris Spencer, is considering whether to run against VanDeaver. Spencer is the chairman of the Sulphur River Basin Authority — an appointee of Abbott — who has a newspaper column that he has used to rebut arguments that vouchers hurt rural Texas.

Spencer declined to comment for this story, but in a Facebook post Tuesday, he said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see VanDeaver vote for HB 1 in committee.

“I hope he continues to demonstrate his support” for the bill on the floor, Spencer said. “The people of House District 1 and Northeast Texas will be watching closely.”

This story originally appeared in the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

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