An effort to redirect state money to help students pay for private school tuition — a favorite cause of conservative education activists in Texas and nationally — seemed to have momentum at the beginning of this year’s legislative session.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared it one of his priorities, calling it the “civil rights issue of our time.” Gov. Greg Abbott spoke in favor of the idea at a boisterous rally outside the Capitol in January.
But after sailing through the Texas Senate, the effort has run aground in the House, thanks to pushback from rural Republicans and Democrats.
“Rural Republicans, I think, really are kind of the pivot point in this whole discussion,” said state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican who represents the northeastern corner of the state. “I believe that anything that pulls anything from public school system rather than improving it is not good policy.”
School choice, also referred to as private school vouchers by critics, has emerged as one of the most divisive education issues this legislative session. The Senate passed its large school choice bill this month — calling for the creation of so-called education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships — after dramatically scaling back the original measure to appease rural senators, concerned that there was little in the bill to benefit rural Texans.
Then, during a marathon debate of the House’s version of the state budget on April 6, legislators overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would bar any state money from supporting school choice programs the next two years, cementing the chamber’s stance on the issue.
All but one House Democrat, who was absent, voted for the amendment, as well as 50 Republicans, 40 of them representing districts with at least one rural school district. Forty-three Republicans voted against the amendment.
VanDeaver and several rural lawmakers said that now is not the time to redirect education dollars to school choice when Texas’ public schools aren’t adequately funded. They have said that school choice, as proposed in the House and Senate, offers no accountability and wouldn’t benefit their constituents because few private schools exist in rural areas.
School choice supporters, on the other hand, said that, as the state explores overhauling its school finance system, now is as good a time as ever to implement a new system that would give poor families an opportunity to escape failing public schools and improve the overall education system by encouraging competition.
The push to create alternatives to the state’s public education system is at least two decades old. Despite this month’s setback, school choice advocates are likely to build on the support in the Senate, possibly pushing for a pilot program in two years as a way to introduce the concept on a smaller scale.
“I don’t think the issue will ever go away,” said Allan Parker, president of San Antonio-based conservative law firm the Justice Foundation. “Parents want more choice.”
State Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who authored the Senate school choice bill — Senate Bill 3 — tried to appeal to rural lawmakers by narrowing eligibility to low-income students in the 17 most populous counties.
Taylor also exempted home-schooling families, many of whom reside in rural areas, from being eligible for state money under the bill. Some home-schooling families have feared more state regulation might come with school choice.
Students leaving public school could use the savings accounts to pay for a variety of education services, including tuition for private schools, online courses and educational therapies. For those students who leave public school, SB 3 would redirect a portion of the per-student state money the school district where the student had attended would have otherwise received.
For a family of four making less than $78,000 per year, a student could receive $6,800 per year. The bill would allow students with disabilities, regardless of income, to receive about $8,200 per year.
Students could also qualify for tax credit scholarships to use toward private school tuition; businesses that donate to the scholarship fund would receive a tax credit — capped at $25 million per year — from the state.
“They can carve up this bill and make it sweeter to pull in extra votes, but it wasn’t a good bill to begin with,” said state Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville.
A major argument against school choice from rural lawmakers is that there isn’t a market for private schools in rural areas.
Private schools are located within the boundaries of just six of the 459 school districts that the Texas Education Agency considers rural, according to an American-Statesman analysis.
The rural-urban Republican split on the House amendment was pronounced: Representatives from eight of the 10 least densely populated GOP House districts voted for the amendment barring state money for school choice. Representatives from seven of the 10 most densely populated Republican districts voted against the amendment, according to the Statesman analysis.
Although some polls and studies have said that Texas voters widely support school choice, Sheffield and VanDeaver have called such findings into question.
Sheffield said that in primaries, voters chose him over pro-voucher candidates.
“Are we talking about a parents’ right to choose where their child is educated or are we talking about giving public funds to private and faith-based schools?” VanDeaver said. “The reality is that we have options in public schools, and that’s what my constituents want … but that’s not what some people mean by school choice,” he said.
Both legislators said the reason constituents don’t want school choice boils down to the quality of public schools and the loyalty to those schools.
David Shanley, superintendent of the rural Johnson City school district, said that he’s already suffering from a broken school finance system and that school choice would be another blow to his district’s bottom line. Johnson City’s student body is a hundredth of the size of the Austin school district’s but the Johnson City district is three times as large by area.
Retirees and people buying second homes are moving into the district, driving up property values without increasing student enrollment, Shanley said. Under the school finance system, property-rich school districts like Johnson City must send money back to the state so that the money can be redistributed to property-poor school districts. Lack of student growth only exacerbates the burden, he said.
“My taxpayers send money out of the district. I can’t catch up,” Shanley said. “It’s a horrible bill. It’s going to affect the pot of money that public schools could potentially have.”
Shanley also fears that school choice would lead to the opening of subpar private schools, leaving school districts to give remedial education to students when they return.
Don Rogers, head of the Texas Rural Education Association, said that he doesn’t see the appetite for school choice in rural areas because the local public schools are ingrained into the culture of the community.
“The rural school is the heart of the community and everything revolves around that school — the pride, the school teams,” he said.
The future of school choice
Among the lawmakers who voted against the anti-school choice amendment were Reps. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, and Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs. Isaac and Wilson, whose legislative districts contain rural school districts, are both interested in offering education savings accounts for special education students. Isaac has co-authored a bill that would create such a system.
Isaac, whose legislative district includes the Johnson City school district, said it’s unlikely that private schools will start popping up in rural areas so communities there shouldn’t feel threatened by school choice.
“If we can help students, why should we get in their way?” he said.
Wilson said the Legislature should allow public schools to be more innovative before implementing a universal school choice program. But he doesn’t think the issue should be left off the table.
“We can validate whether it does or does not hurt public education. I think we have to back into this a little bit slower,” he said.
Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, chairman of the Texas Rural Legislative Caucus, also would like to see a school choice system for special education students.
Randan Steinhauser with Texans for Education Opportunity, the influential group that helped craft SB 3, is already gearing up for another school choice push, pledging to hold House members who supported the anti-school choice amendment accountable.
“School choice advocates will hold House members accountable by ensuring that voters in their district know about this vote and their efforts to undermine parental freedom,” Steinhauser said.
Advocates for school choice are optimistic about its chances to become law in Texas sometime soon. Grass-roots support is growing, more states are adopting school choice programs, and President Donald Trump has promised to steer $20 billion in federal dollars to support school choice.
“Everyone should be able to go to the school that they want to go, public or private, religious or not religious,” said Parker, of the conservative Justice Foundation. “It’s the American way.”