What happen to school choice in the Texas legislature?

2023 has now come to an end and one of the most important issues to many Texans, school choice, failed to pass during the year’s five legislative sessions.

Here’s a look at what went right and what went wrong when lawmakers attempted to pass their education bills.

All the way back in 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott made clear that school choice was going to be one of his most important issues in the upcoming 88th Legislative Session.

During an event in Kingwood, Abbott told the press, “This upcoming session, you’re going to see a stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the State of Texas.” He continued his push for school choice in other areas across the state.

“Parents should not be forced to send their child to a government-mandated school that teaches critical race theory, or is forcing their child to wear a face mask against their parents’ desire, or is forcing them to attend a school that isn’t safe,” he said at an event in Fort Stockton.

Abbott continued to cozy up with pro-school choice advocates like Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow with the American Federation for Children, and it also appeared he had the leader in the Senate on his side for his school choice mission.

“The governor and I are all in on school choice,” Patrick said in January 2023. “We are going to pass school choice and I hope, finally, that this is the session that we join over 30 other states in giving parental rights to parents to choose the school of their choice.”

Patrick reiterated that support during The Texan’s 88th Session Kickoff event that same month, saying, ”We have to have school choice … we just have to have it.”

Former Gov. Rick Perry, a longtime advocate for school choice in Texas, was vocal about the need to pass legislation, telling The Texan, “We’re a state that believes in freedom and liberty and we are proud of that. I think giving parents these options is good I think and that’s part of what these pieces of legislation do.”

With two of the state’s “Big Three” on board for school choice along with the former governor, the last piece of the puzzle would be to get the House leadership aligned, but Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) appeared more skeptical.

During a radio interview in 2022, Phelan said he would “have no problem with an up or down vote on the floor or in committee” when it came to school choice legislation. He went on to say his hesitancy came from past challenges “on the House floor on budget night, which was a test vote [for vouchers], and it’s been about 40-45 out of 150 members would vote for that. So the delta is pretty large on getting school choice across the finish line.”

The doubt was well-founded, as the Texas House had never been able to bring school choice legislation to the floor for a vote in the past. 

Under the pink dome, both chambers got to work. In the upper chamber, Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) led the charge for all things education, introducing multiple pieces of school choice legislation.

His first initial blueprint came in the form of education savings accounts (ESA), and included teacher pay raises and a “hold harmless” provision that public school districts would be reimbursed if students were lost to ESA-paid private schools.

The focus on appeasing rural Republicans was top of mind for many lawmakers, as concerns had been floated in the past from representatives of rural districts about the feasibility of passing school choice legislation. Anti-school choice lobby groups had taken a hard stance against the proposition in the leadup to the session.

State Rep. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford) had been one the most vocal opponents to school choice. In 2022, he called it “a trojan horse attempt to privatize Texas’ education system, and drain our already underfunded public education of necessary resources for millions of children.”

The Senate had an easier time accepting school choice legislation, while the House found its first major hurdle in the form of the “Herrero amendment” in the state budget, which would have prohibited the use of state dollars for a school voucher or ESA program. The amendment was eventually removed from the final approved budget, but this test vote showed how rocky of a path the House would have to traverse in order to pass school choice legislation.

Creighton remained optimistic, telling The Texan, “Even members of the House that may have voted for that amendment to the budget — so for it, and against school choice — I think that there are some open minds and open hearts on the concept of school choice among many of those members, but they need to see the deal.”

Those “open minds and open hearts” didn’t appear to reciprocate.

Public hearings that lasted late into the night were held. Reformulations and substitutions were presented, but nothing appeared to appease the holdout House members. Creighton made a last-ditch effort to pass school choice on the eve of the end of the regular session, but when House Bill (HB) 100 died in conference committee, it spelled the beginning of the end.

Creighton’s dismay was front and center when he said that he “learned today that the House had no intention of negotiating.”

The failure of a priority not only for the Senate but for the governor led many to believe that a special session was inevitable. During the regular session, Abbott toured the state to campaign heavily for school choice and threatened lawmakers with extended stays in Austin, even going as far as to say he would veto bills that reached his desk that didn’t fulfill his promise of “meaningful school choice.”

Abbott followed through on those promises and called back lawmakers for additional special sessions with an explicit call to establish an ESA program for all Texas schoolchildren.

“Together, we will chart a brighter future for all Texas children by empowering parents to choose the best education option for their child,” Abbott said in a statement during his third special session call.

The heat under the pink dome to pass school choice continued to rise, and the controversy outside and between the chambers only fanned the flames.

A “GOP civil war” erupted in the wake of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial. Phelan and Patrick, once known for their weekly breakfast meetings, began to display their feuding for the public to see. Each took the opportunity on multiple occasions to admonish each other, with some moments erring on the side of comedy as meme battles were exchanged on social media.

It appeared that no middle ground would be had between the two chambers’ leaders, especially with the added controversy surrounding a meeting between the group behind a well-known conservative political action committee and antisemitic commentator Nick Fuentes. Phelan and Patrick’s fighting increased to the point of Patrick calling for the speaker to resign, which only darkened the prospects of school choice legislation passing.

Democrats saw the divide among Republicans as their opportunity to voice their own desires when it came to education in the state.

House Democrats routinely held press conferences promising their own education bills, touting the “Fully Fund Our Future” Act. Staunch opponents to school choice legislation, they continually called ESA initiatives a “voucher scam,” with Rep. Trey Martinez-Fishcher (D-San Antonio) saying that “there is a public school coalition of Republicans and Democrats that are standing united against vouchers.”

Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin) echoed concerns from anti-school choice advocates about Texas being “43rd in the nation in per student funding … schools are 40 billion behind the national average.” Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) was not shy about his views of Republicans pushing for school choice, saying, “We should have made our children our top priority. Not billionaires. Not wacko libertarian ideals. Not some kind of crazy political agenda to reward our political donors.”

Those concerns about funding schools and teachers proved a major hurdle for school choice-hesitant Republicans, but disagreements on the actual numbers related to education in Texas were something that was routinely bandied about.

Many pointed towards numbers from the education group Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT), which reported that Texas is among the lowest in the nation when it comes to per student funding with their estimates putting the current basic allotment per child at $6,160. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has called this claim a “myth,” stating that RYHT only accounts for the state’s basic allotment and ignores the additional “tens of billions of dollars taxpayers pour into the system each year.”

The TEA reported that Texas spends over $12,000 per student when accounting for local property taxes, state operating funds, federal funds, and other local revenues. During the regular session, the state approved an additional $10.8 billion for public school funding.

The pressure on lawmakers during the third special session continued to mount as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a longtime vocal supporter of school choice, made public statements calling on the Legislature to pass the policy. Cruz said he would “vigorously support conservative, pro-school-choice primary opponents against Republicans who vote ‘no’ this special session.”

Both the Senate and House proposed their own bills. The upper chamber offered two education-related bills, one to appease the governor’s school choice call and another to fulfill the wishes of the lower chamber with teacher pay raises and school funding increases.

While the Senate proposed and passed its legislation, all eyes were on the House and its education omnibus HB 1. It was immediately met with criticism from the governor’s office, with an Abbott spokesperson saying that the bill “differs from what the Governor’s office had negotiated with the House leadership team selected by the Speaker.”

Abbott appeared to see the curtain beginning to close and expanded his special session call after what he said was a “productive discussion” with both Patrick and Phelan. But no movement was made on school choice, and disagreements between House members over other items on the call devolved into shouting matches and passive-aggressive gesturing on the floor. Even as HB 1 author Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen) proposed a new draft of his bill, it was all but promised that a fourth special session was imminent.

That fourth special session ended up being the final chance for school choice legislation to pass in 2023. Abbott was finally satisfied with the new House education omnibus and continued to indicate that he would veto any bill that made it to his desk without ESAs attached. The House committee was able to pass the legislation and send it to the floor, a move that has been historically unprecedented.

Heading into the House floor vote, many suspected that the removal of ESAs from the education omnibus bill was looming, based on the “Herrero amendment” test vote earlier in the year and opponents rallying their troops as the vote approached.

On the day of the HB 1 vote, rumors circulated that an amendment to strip ESAs would be proposed, and those rumors were quickly proved correct. The amendment offered by Rep. John Raney (R-College Station) was initially signed by 16 other members before being passed by a vote of 84 to 63. Members then voted to lock that change in and prevent the removal from being reconsidered at a later time, a motion which passed by the same margin as Raney’s amendment.

Republicans attempted to quell Raney’s attempts to remove ESAs with Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) calling a point of order, claiming that the amendment would change the purpose of the bill and was not in line with the governor’s call. However, his point of order was not successful in squashing the amendment.

The fourth special session concluded without school choice legislation passing, and Abbott was not slow in enacting revenge against those who voted to strip ESAs from HB 1.

Just days after the bill died on the House floor, the governor endorsed 58 incumbents who voted to keep ESAs, saying that “these House Republicans were instrumental in passing and sending critical legislation to my desk … and parent empowerment laws to give parents more rights in their child’s education and remove inappropriate books from school libraries.”

Notably, Abbott did not include Phelan among his list of endorsements, as he had voted “present not voting” on the anti-ESA amendment.

As future primary elections loom, school choice will continue to be front and center for both candidates and voters. Many challengers have appeared in notable races and are campaigning on pro-school choice platforms. The public hunger for school choice has not died either, with polling showing increases in support from not only Republicans but rural voters as well.

School choice in Texas was and is one of the more contentious issues for both lawmakers and voters, and those disagreements about education will only continue to be debated in the upcoming primary fight.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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