Gov. Abbott backs ESAs as school choice option


The top elected official in Texas planted his flag on school choice reform Tuesday when Gov. Greg Abbott announced his support for Education Savings Accounts (ESA).

“Parents should not be helpless, they should be able to choose the education option that is best for their child,” Abbott said at an event in Corpus Christi. “The way to do that is with ESAs — Education Savings Accounts. We’ve seen them work in other states and we’ve seen them work in the State of Texas also.”

The governor said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, he established an ESA pilot system for special needs students. That program allots $1,500 grants to parents or caregivers of special needs children “that have been impacted by COVID-19 school closures” through the Texas Education Agency.

“It’s been so successful [that] right now the Texas Legislature is working to increase funding for that program,” he said. “But that program shouldn’t be limited, it should be available to everyone in Texas. Now is the time to expand ESAs to every child in Texas.”

Abbott has been quite bullish on some form of school choice legislation for the 88th regular session. He said a year ago that he expected a historic push for school choice, and earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he and the governor are “all in” on the issue this year. But Abbott hadn’t yet backed a specific or substantial plan to do that — until now.

ESAs are most often accounts funded based on the state’s per-pupil formula that families may then use for education purposes. They act in a similar but not identical fashion to “vouchers” — shorthand for education-purposed state dollars granted to parents through tuition checks often divvied out directly between the state and private school of choice — but are usually more broadly applicable than just for tuition at a specific institution. The other main difference is that parents do not actually possess the money with ESAs but have discretion on directing it.

There used to be a constitutional concern surrounding voucher systems as many states, including Texas, have passed amendments prohibiting state dollars from going to religious institutions. But a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling assuaged that concern in Carson v. Makin, deciding that religious schools cannot be singled out by states.

State Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) has filed legislation that would establish “parental empowerment accounts” for enrolled students, funded equal to the per-student state average of a school district’s Maintenance & Operations expenditures. The bill specifically prohibits federal dollars from funding the program.

The balance of those accounts could be used for a wide range of purposes such as tuition, class materials, tutor fees, or devices like laptops and calculators. It specifically prohibits parents or family members from pocketing the grant money.

“Thank you Governor Abbott for fighting to pass educational choice for every child,” Middleton said in a statement. “In Texas, parents matter. Education savings accounts will allow money to follow every child and allow parents to decide which educational options work best for their children’s unique needs. Children belong to their parents— not the government. No one knows what a child’s educational needs are better than their parent.”

“No one knows what is better for their child’s education than parents [and] they must have the freedom to choose what is best for their child,” Abbott told the crowd in Corpus Christi.

Abbott also prefaced other education reforms that will be pushed this session, such as prohibiting certain curriculum teachings with an eye toward “getting back to the basics” of educational skills.

Opposition to school choice generally focuses on one aspect: the potential diversion of school funding from rural districts.

State Rep. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford), one of the foremost opponents of the policy in the Texas House, wrote last April that school choice, specifically vouchers and their ilk, is “a trojan horse attempt to privatize Texas’ education system, and drain our already underfunded public education of necessary resources for millions of children.”

Patrick countered this concern, saying that in sparsely populated areas, the economic factors required to compete with rural school districts simply aren’t there.

The school choice fight will be among the most significant this session, particularly in the Texas House, where Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) has said previous votes show only 40 to 45 members in support.

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