Greg Abbott’s school choice vengeance

In the Texas primary on Tuesday, voters resoundingly chose lawmakers who support school choice. In all, six incumbent members of the Texas House who opposed education savings accounts, or vouchers, this last legislative session lost their races. Four are headed to a runoff, and six incumbents survived the bloodbath. 

This was no accident on the part of Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX). He spent considerable political capital crisscrossing the state over the last few months, strategically targeting lawmakers who opposed vouchers. Even in cases in which Abbott had previously supported a candidate, he rallied voters against that particular lawmaker if he or she opposed expanding school choice in Texas. The ability to flip six, possibly 10, seats just by backing the pro-school choice opponent is a real demonstration of a come-hell-or-highwater gravitas many didn’t think Abbott had.

Abbott vowed to pass vouchers in the 2023 legislative session, which saw four special sessions, but failed to do so. This was in part because 21 Republican lawmakers refused to accept a bill that combined increased funds for education, such as teacher raises, with a voucher program. In the eleventh hour of the fourth special session, lawmakers stripped the education omnibus bill of its voucher provision, and nothing passed.

Abbott and conservatives in favor of vouchers have claimed for years that Texans really want more school choice. There are charter schools in Texas already. But despite the wave of voucher programs in states such as Arizona and Florida, Texas’s diverse demographics, which include a lot of rural areas, have prevented lawmakers representing those areas from supporting vouchers. 

An October 2023 poll from the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project showed that 51% of Texans say they support “establishing a voucher, educational savings account (ESA), or other ‘school choice’ program in Texas,” while just 30% oppose it. According to the poll, almost half of rural Texans support school choice, and over a third of Democrats do.

Now, with a handful of lawmakers flipped toward school choice, Abbott will be able to push for vouchers again in Texas’s next legislative session, which starts in January 2025. If he’s able to secure vouchers, it will undoubtedly become a legacy-making issue for him, along with his successful push to reduce property taxes during the 2023 session and effort to secure the Texas-Mexico border. 

Of course, primaries do not draw a massive number of voters, but they do draw the die-hard politicos, people who are often already well informed on specific issues and races. So, while it’s possible to infer from Tuesday’s primary that school choice is not widely supported among Texas voters, just activists, polls do continue to reinforce its popularity. 

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Texas public education also is in desperate need of a reboot. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2022, the average score of eighth grade students in Texas was 255, lower than the average score of 259 for students in the nation. Despite increasing funds for education, with the state spending an average of almost $12,000 per student, scores have remained similar to what they were in 1998. 

Expanding school choice to a full education savings program, in which students receive an allotted amount of funds that follows students through their K-12 education, could incentivize poor public schools to improve and allow parents the ability to choose an education that best suits their child’s needs. If Texas passes an education savings program in 2025, it will be the 35th state to embrace some kind of voucher program. Thanks to Abbott, this might now be more possible than ever. 

Nicole Russell (@russell_nm) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. She is a mother of four and an opinion columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas.

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