No issue has been more widely supported for so long, yet left completely ignored by the Texas Legislature, than that of “school choice” and “education freedom.”
On poll after poll, even on several GOP primary ballots, voters and taxpayers have strongly supported the notion that state education dollars should be used to fund the education of a child regardless of the “provider.”
Yes, the GOP-dominated legislative and executive branches of state government have for two decades talked on and off about “choice”—but mostly off. When things get dicey in the public schools, talk of school choice ramps up.
But, inevitably, Republican legislators remember that the top employer in their district is “public education,” and they get weak in the knees. They pledge fidelity to an institution seemingly more concerned with employing adults than educating children.
For the last two years, things have become very dicey in public education.
Teachers are demanding the right to talk with prepubescent children about their LGBTQIA+ sexcapades. Librarians demand they be allowed to hand out explicit porn comic books. Superintendents are mocking legislative bans on “critical race theory.” Schools boards are arresting parents for speaking out against tax hikes.
What had been a steady trickle of parents pulling their children from public schools turned into a flood. Waiting lists for charter schools (which are, technically, still public schools) and private schools are at an all-time high. Homeschooling has expanded exponentially.
And so in 2023, Gov. Greg Abbott has gone from a reliable sideline supporter of “#schoolchoice” to holding issue rallies in targeted legislative districts around the state.
The leading proposal is a measure that—while not the “universal” educational freedom many, like U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, want to see—nonetheless advances the issue further than it has ever gone. (Again, not a high bar.)
Authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, the proposal isn’t without its flaws, such as giving “rural” school districts an extra $10,000 per student who leaves. Oh, and “rural” includes the tiny neighborhoods that make up Eanes ISD and Highland Park ISD.
The proposal also excludes anyone who isn’t currently enrolled in a public school. The net effect of that is to limit built-in advocates.
But, again, this is a more serious—and more seriously pushed—proposal than we have yet seen at any point this century.
Except there is the problem of the Texas House. For several sessions running, “school choice” has been a straw man argument every “rural” Republican, moderate Republican, GOP-platform-hating Republican, and every Democrat could assail without consequence. With no serious proposals put forward, the House has engaged in the ritualistic sacrifice of “school choice” to appease the gods of government growth and public education.
“Ritualistic” because, of course, there was no consequence. Here’s how it worked. On the day the state’s biennial budget is debated on the House floor, an amendment is offered—usually by a Democrat—that would prohibit any and all funds in the budget from being used for a voucher plan, ESA program, or other school school/education freedom endeavor. It passes with overwhelming support.
Once in the Senate, the amendment is stripped away and the final budget contains no such prohibition. But that is, also, meaningless because no serious proposal has existed.
Again, until now.
Which makes this week very interesting. The Texas House is slated to consider the budget on Thursday. And, once again, a Democrat has authored an amendment banning school choice.
For Republicans, there is the pesky problem of a legit school choice measure in the Senate. There is also the pesky problem of a governor who seems really ginned up about the issue.
Yet this session, the amendment in question also has the backing of a senior “leadership” Republican: Fort Worth’s Charlie Geren, the speaker pro tem. He’s not a conservative, and is probably not seeking re-election in 2024, but he’s also on the team of House Speaker Dade Phelan.
In terms of state public policy, the amendment is meaningless for the reasons already mentioned.
Rhetorically, it might be the most consequential vote of the session on education for everyone on every side of the issue. It will signal the appetite for the House to move any school choice legislation.
School choice opponents have told me they are a little upset with the amendment being filed because, in 2023, there is an actual school choice proposal on the table and two months of session to fight it off. They worry (correctly) this budget amendment might paint targets on their weak GOP allies at which Abbott and others can shoot at … for two months … and potentially flip.
Whether or not those House members can withstand whatever political pressure Abbott might theoretically bring to bear, passage of the budget amendment does serve a legitimate excuse for Speaker Phelan to not bring any school choice measure forward. No matter what, that makes life hard for the advocates of school choice.
In essence, Phelan and the House would be daring Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to follow through veiled (and not so veiled) threats of forcing a special session on the school choice issue.
History says the good money is against education freedom in 2023, but history has never had the fight aligned quite like this.