'School choice' battle continues in Austin

Gov. Greg Abbott is all in for school choice.

As the Texas legislature convenes in Austin today to debate a program that would give families public funds for private schooling, the usually cautious Abbott has pushed all his chips to the center of the table.

That push for a universal option ups the ante from previous Texas school choice battles, when supporters would have been happy to exit a session with a law dispensing education savings accounts, or ESAs, solely to students with disabilities or low-income students.

Abbott faces rising expectations from staunch conservatives, partly because six other red states this year have passed “universal school choice,” or laws that come close to achieving it.

He’s plunging forward, even as the state GOP is riven with infighting after last month’s vote by the Senate to acquit Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of corruption charges after a once-a-century impeachment trial.

Early scheduling signals by Senate committee chiefs suggest that in the new special session, as usual, Patrick plans to move early to pass bills quickly and put all the pressure on the House and Abbott. Patrick has plugged voucherlike proposals for all of his 17 years as a lawmaker.

Abbott spokesman Andrew Mahaleris, asked why a longtime politician such as the governor suddenly has pressed hard for school choice, said the COVID-19 pandemic altered perceptions.

“During and after covid, parents grew frustrated at the quality of schools and the substance of what is taught,” Mahaleris said in an email. “Families became angry that their children were being forced to learn virtually, especially as they watched students fall behind in classes while their government-mandated schools were closed. … Families deserve the ability to choose the best education opportunities for their children.”

Adding to the political risks, Abbott didn’t wait for a consensus before summoning lawmakers back.

In August, a Phelan-created House select panel devoted less than half a page to education savings accounts in a 20-page rendition of what most members saw as the most urgent matters in K-12 public education.

The report didn’t endorse or reject ESAs. Backers tout “the merits of having more competition in education” and helping students who currently can’t afford private schools, it said. Foes fear the accounts will drain funding away from public schools and create worrisome “logistics of tracking taxpayer funds,” the House report noted.

He hasn’t yet expanded his “call,” however, to include higher teacher pay, increased school funding or changes to the A-F grades given to school districts and public school campuses. Districts across Texas are suing the state over recent changes to that academic accountability system.

House members are expected to demand action on those items.

During the year’s regular session, lawmakers passed and Abbott signed a two-year budget that spends $144.1 billion of state discretionary funds.

Republican leaders included $4 billion for school formula funding increases and higher teacher salaries, and $500 million for “school choice.” But they made that spending contingent on passing other bills. The other bills didn’t pass because of a House-Senate deadlock over ESAs.

House leaders want to free up even more money to raise teacher pay and increase the “basic allotment,” or the amount of money provided per-student to public schools.

However, Patrick has not tipped his hand on what level of funding or changes to accountability he and the Senate would accept.

Public school superintendents and many trustees oppose any voucherlike program. They are frustrated that more money for their campuses was held back during the spring’s school choice debate.

Public school leaders are frustrated by the fact that private schools, unlike public ones, can choose to reject students. Those schools are also not held to the same state accountability standards.

Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said Patrick and Abbott are gunning for a major victory on school choice not believed probable a few years ago.

“Abbott doesn’t want to restrict it, he wants it wide open,” Robison said of the eligibility for ESAs.

Mahaleris, the Abbott spokesman, said the governor wants “to build on the parent empowerment successes of the regular legislative session,” such as restrictions on library books in schools, with a special-session bill that will “ensure all Texas families have the opportunity to choose the best education path for their children.”

To get his way, Abbott is threatening lawmakers with more time away from families and jobs — and possible support for their opponents in next year’s elections.

Speaking to Protestant pastors and a Catholic bishop last month, Abbott warned that if House lawmakers continue to block ESA legislation, he’ll follow up this special session with another.

“And if we don’t win that time, I think it’s time to send this to the voters themselves to vote in the primary,” Abbott said in a tele-town hall arranged by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Though Democratic state representatives could be Abbott targets, he was referring, mostly, to the March 5 GOP primary. Special sessions can last up to 30 days each.

Monty Exter, of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, which opposes voucherlike plans, said House members he has spoken with recently have not quaked with fear at the prospect that Abbott, who has $23 million in his campaign account, might back their opponents next year.

“Legislators have said to me his promises never come through,” Exter said, noting that Abbott succeeded in helping knock out only one of three GOP House incumbents he targeted in 2018.

“There’s a bit of crying wolf … when the governor starts throwing around primary or electoral threats.”

Greg Sindelar, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, though, said the landscape has changed. In the past two years, eight Republican-dominated states, some bordering Texas, passed universal school choice programs, he noted.

All of the current GOP presidential candidates support school choice, he said.

“This is a bread and butter Republican issue now,” said Sindelar, whose group churns out reports and videos promoting ESAs as a way to empower parents.

“It ultimately will get it done,” he said. “What it looks like — does it look like the bill just passed in Arizona or Florida or Iowa? — I don’t know those details yet, but I do think that there’s a recognition that this is important, and this needs to get done.”

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