For Randy Willis, public schools are crucial to rural communities.
“I think the rural schools are the heart of Texas. They’re the backbone of Texas,” he said.
Willis is the executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, which represents about 375 small districts. He thinks the state’s Republican leaders may have forgotten the role rural districts play in their local economies and communities.
Willis said he is frustrated that Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are more focused on creating a school voucher program in Texas than funding public schools. Vouchers allow families to use taxpayer money to pay for private school and other educational expenses.
“The rural community is what elected the governor and lieutenant governor,” he said. “And they are not showing a whole lot of support for that support we gave them.”
Abbott has repeatedly said Texas families should have more options for educating their kids. During his State of the State address back in February, he also accused public schools of indoctrinating students with what he considers liberal ideologies.
Willis said that just is not true.
“Obviously they’ve never been to a rural school. They’ve never been to rural Texas,” he said. “We teach God, country and Texas.”
Texas lawmakers are at the Capitol for the third special legislative session of the year. Abbott called them back to Austin because a school voucher bill failed during the regular session after a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans in the House blocked it.
Historically, rural Republicans have opposed voucher legislation over concerns it will undermine state funding for public schools. That’s also a top concern for Willis. And while a voucher program may not be too expensive at first, he said, the costs of similar programs in other states have skyrocketed.
“It’s just insulting cause they’ve underfunded us, underpaid us and now they want to do this program,” he said.
Abbott has said he will add public school funding to the special session agenda — only if the Legislature approves education savings accounts, a voucher-like program.
“Once we hammer out this deal [on vouchers] and reach an agreement on it, we’re going to add to the agenda to make sure that we will be providing even more funding for public schools and a pay raise for our teachers across the state of Texas,” Abbott told supporters last week at the Capitol.
But Willis and rural school leaders say the delay on new public school funding is leaving rural districts in the lurch.
A tale of two districts
On a Friday night in October, the parking lot at Liberty Hill High School is growing more crowded by the minute. Students and families are tailgating before a football game against Lockhart High School. The scent of barbecue wafts through the air as kids gleefully play games at booths set up near Panther Stadium.
“This is what Friday night looks like. We’re early and in about 30 minutes you won’t even be able to walk through here,” Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Steven Snell said. “And Friday nights, it’s all about kids, it’s all about community.”