Despite Governor Greg Abbott’s relentless efforts to advance a school voucher program in Texas, disappointment looms as state Republicans stand in opposition to the legislation, even after Abbott compelled them to return to work for its passage.
Governor Abbott and the Texas House of Representatives find themselves deadlocked over the governor’s top legislative priority, even after two and a half weeks into the third special session. Legislators were summoned back to the state Capitol on October 9 by Abbott’s orders to enact his education savings account proposal. This program aims to provide parents with educational tax dollars that they can use to send their children to private or religious schools instead of public institutions.
Presently, the governor faces a conundrum, as a united Democratic coalition and 24 rural Republican holdouts are obstructing the progress of the legislation. Last week, the House introduced a limited voucher program that also aimed to bolster public education. Nevertheless, Abbott deemed it “insufficient” and requested a standalone bill instead.
Newsweek sought a comment from Governor Abbott’s office via email, but received no response.
Abbott has framed the policy as “school choice” for Texas parents and families and remains resolute in his objective. He has even gone as far as threatening to convene a fourth special legislative session and to support other Republican candidates who endorse his cause. The current special session is set to conclude on November 7.
During a town hall meeting last month, Abbott declared, “There’s an easy way to get it done, and there’s a hard way… If we do not win in that first special session, we will have another special special session and we’ll come back again. And then if we don’t win that time… We will have everything teed up in a way where we will be giving voters in a primary a choice.”
Nonetheless, around two dozen state Republicans representing rural Texas communities are putting up a staunch resistance. They express concerns that the program might divert funds away from the public school systems their communities heavily depend on.
“I think there is still significant opposition to any school finance bill that includes an ESA,” said Representative Drew Darby to the Texas Tribune. “I’m comfortable we have enough like-minded rural Republicans, and urban Republicans, to stand against that in numbers sufficient to defeat it.”
Opponents of school voucher programs and educational savings accounts argue that these policies result in reduced enrollment in public schools and undermine public-school funding, thus jeopardizing the quality of education available to students attending public schools.
The push for expanding school choice gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic when most schools shifted to online teaching. The so-called “parents’ choice” movement emerged as many families became disillusioned with school policies and curriculums.
While Abbott has expressed willingness to consider increased funding for public schools separately, the Texas Legislature has not increased per-student public school funding since 2019. In May, the state Senate refused to allocate Texas’ $33 billion budget surplus to increase funding unless a school voucher program was part of the deal, leaving many public school districts starting the school year in a deficit.
“It was a universal ESA or nothing,” stated Republican state Representative Ken King in a May 27 statement. “I am committed to protecting the 5.5 million school kids in Texas from being used as political hostages. What the Governor and the Senate [have] done is inexcusable, and I stand ready to set it right and continue to work for the best outcome for our students and schools.”
Abbott had persistently advocated for an education savings account during the regular legislative session, but his proposals were twice rejected by the House.