There are more than 7 million children living in Texas, and Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s running for re-election against democrat Beto O’Rourke this year, now says he’d like for state education money to follow each student – whether that student is attending a public school, a private school, or perhaps some other non-public option like online or home schooling.
As Patrick Svitek writes for the Texas Tribune, the idea of school educational vouchers has been a tough sell in the state Legislature in the past; many opponents of so-called “school choice” say such plans undermine public school funding and could pose an existential threat to already struggling public schools by potentially reducing their resources. That’s the position taken by O’Rourke, who’s been quick to push back against Abbott’s remarks, which came during a campaign event in San Antonio.
But Abbott’s comments represent his clearest stand on the debate in some time – perhaps a reflection of how Republicans view the salience of schooling to supporters in this year’s election season. Big-money donors are pouring cash into some school board races after complaints – notably from conservatives – over books about gender and sexuality in school libraries that some claim to be pornographic, as well as accusations that elements of critical race theory are being taught in the classroom. Will the school choice debate get new traction in Texas?
Abbott’s renewed push for so-called school choice and school vouchers is an opportunity for the governor to campaign on “parental rights,” said Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas-El Paso with a teaching interest focused around Texas politics.
“You’re going to see the overlap between the conversations, as you mentioned, in the lead-in to critical race theory and other issues that the governor and conservatives find distasteful,” Pineda said. “And think about how those things are going to need to be challenged. And I think they’ll use this as an election issue in the sense of saying this is the ultimate way to protect these rights.”
Republican state leaders have pushed for “school choice” in past legislative sessions, most notably in 2017. But the movement didn’t gain traction, including among Republicans who represented more rural parts of the state.
“Critics of this kind of policy say it puts already cash-strapped public schools, especially rural school districts, at risk of losing more funding,” Pineda said. “But during that campaign event in San Antonio, Governor Abbott said, ‘We can fully fund public schools while also giving parents a choice about which school is right for their child.’ I mean, is it possible to fully fund public schools if the money is following the state, money is following the individual student?”
These policy debates over state money following parents and students to the school of their choosing is causing significant backlash among public education groups. But Pineda says he doesn’t foresee a huge push in favor of public schools come November.
“Keep in mind that that the governor is very clearly not only testing these as ideas for this reelection campaign, but I bet you beans to bullets that every one of these strategies is being game-tested for a national run to the White House,” he said.