DALLAS — Gov. Greg Abbott has almost — but not quite — endorsed the idea of private school vouchers for the upcoming session, a move that has frustrated education groups and his opponent Beto O’Rourke alike.
Sixteen states, mostly Southern and heavily Republican, have passed some type of voucher program. That makes Texas — the largest and reddest of all — an outlier when it comes to sending public dollars with students to private or parochial school.
The King’s Academy, where Abbott met with pro-school choice supporters behind closed doors on Thursday, would have been an ideal choice for a school voucher announcement. Opened in the African-American Bonton community of South Dallas in 2019, The King’s Academy was a long-held dream of local leaders and Prestonwood Baptist Church.
“I’ve visited schools across the entire state of Texas, and we have students from our early pre-k through the earliest grades in elementary school,” Abbott said. “And what they were able to recite — the length of it — was just astonishing. It shows the quality of the type of education that they are receiving right now.”
Abbott, and those who support him, have made a push for school choice across multiple sessions, usually alternating with a session in which Republicans fund broader public education initiatives.
One philanthropist-backed push was for straight school choice. Another campaign was to offer more options for families with special education children. A third push was to offer scholarship tax credits, which would fund parents who wanted to move their children from public to private school options.
Beto O’Rourke has opposed school vouchers, buying up ads in rural newspapers, saying Abbott was on a mission to privatize public education. Abbott’s campaign has accused O’Rourke of being in the pocket of teacher unions.
Every voucher effort in Texas, past and present, has failed; typically, it dies in the House, where Democrats and rural Republicans have crushed such measures at the behest of public education advocates.
Abbott’s push last spring — which collapsed under the weight of pandemic demands — began during the last legislative session. Over the summer, the topic has come up from time to time, with Abbott using terms such as “parental empowerment” and “parent choice.”
He does not use the word “vouchers,” which would pin him down on one model the public education community could critique. Instead, Abbott opens his argument talking about the record amount of funding he has approved for public education.
“I’m a product of public education myself, having gone to Duncanville schools and Duncanville High School, and we want to see (public schools) continue to succeed,” Abbott said. “That said, what we are pointing out today is the reality that must be recognized by everybody, and that is, parents know what school is best for them.”
Abbott is vague — and possibly deliberately vague — when talking about what his plan for parental choice might be. In a prior interview, Abbott has indicated he would defer to lawmakers to hammer out the specifics on school choice.
Zeph Capo of Texas AFT, a leading teachers’ union, called Abbott’s comments on Thursday “an amazing display of linguistic gymnastics.”
“While he spoke of ‘parental empowerment’ and ‘different options’ for education, Abbott may have avoided the word ‘voucher,’ but that’s exactly his goal,” Capo said. “It’s no surprise, though, that he’d avoid talking transparently about vouchers given so few Texans support them.”
Abbott spends more time giving a nod and a wink to school vouchers, when he could spend his time supporting most Texas children in public schools, Capo said. Buzzwords won’t change that.
Recent cracks in support for public school education — be it the critical race theory movement or the outrage of school library books — are a wedge that school choice supporters will leverage.
Mandy Drogin, who is the campaign manager for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Next-Generation Texas, said parents need to be the number one voice in their children’s education.
Parents need transparency on their school campuses, to know what their children are learning, Drogin said. They need access to the best possible education options. And they need a system that respects the parent as the ultimate authority when it comes to choices in their children’s education.
The King’s Academy is a place where school leaders like Shailendra Thomas talk about children being a gift from God, Drogin said. It’s a place where parents are equal partners with administrators, knowing that parents are sharing something precious with the school.
“I think what we’re seeing around our state and in our nation is parents are being strong-armed, they’re being kept out. There’s not that partnership and the respect breaks down,” Drogin said. “We ultimately see parents showing up in public forums, or going on social media. They’re frustrated.”
Abbott and O’Rourke are scheduled to meet in a single debate on Sept. 30.