Early this year, the state’s Republican leaders came out strongly for the passage of legislation expanding parental choice in education and demanding the Texas House vote on the issue. Last week, lawmakers in the lower chamber finally gave advocates a vote, but chose overwhelmingly to reject the long-held position of Texas’ conservative majority.
The Texas Senate passed a school choice measure last month.
As the House was debating the budget last Thursday, three Republican lawmakers, State Reps. Gary VanDeaver (Texarkana), Ken King (Canadian), and Kyle Kacal (Bryan), joint-authored an amendment by Democrat State Rep. Abel Herrero (Corpus Christi) to explicitly ban funds from being used for any school choice programs.
A majority of Republican lawmakers voted in favor of the amendment, carrying out the death sentence announced for school choice this session by House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty (R–Kingwood) in January. The amendment was adopted by a vote of 104-43.
Seeking to try and salvage the situation, conservative State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R–Deer Park) offered an amendment allowing an exemption for families with household incomes of less than $75,000 per year—mirroring the requirements contained in the revised version of Senate Bill 3 that passed the Texas Senate at the end of March.
“A lot of opponents of school choice say, ‘This is only for the rich.’ This amendment allows poor families to have a choice,” Cain said. His proposal was defeated by an even larger margin of 117-27.
Both votes are major defeats for school choice advocates and Republican leaders who have been pushing the issue for more than a decade.
“Last session the Senators passed the first ever school choice bill out of this building with money attached as a tax credit program. It never got a vote in the rest of the Legislature,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at a rally in January. “I say, if you block a bill on school choice, you are blocking the future of that child, of that family, of that American Dream. We want a vote, up or down, in the Senate and in the House this session for school choice.”
At the same rally, Gov. Greg Abbott agreed:
“I know Lt. Gov. Patrick and legislative leaders from both the House and the Senate have been working on a school choice law,” said Abbott. “I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk. And when it does, I will make the choice to sign it and authorize school choice in the state of Texas.”
Last month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz followed up on those words with some of his own, sending every member of the Texas Legislature a letter demanding they pass school choice.
“There is no political, social, policy or moral excuse for delaying what Florida, Arizona, Nevada and many other states have already done,” wrote Cruz in the letter. “Pass a school choice program now that allows parents to design an education that is best for their children.”
While state-wide elected officials can sometimes hold views that aren’t supported in particular districts, an analysis by Republican pollster Chris Wilson shows that the House vote on school choice was “overwhelmingly contrary to constituent views.” He alleges that based on his polling, the “average level of support for school choice across all State House Districts in Texas was 63%.”
Such data isn’t surprising. School choice is ranked high on the list of priorities by grassroots conservatives across the state and the issue received major support in the Republican Party Platform with 93 percent of delegates voting in favor of the following plank:
“We believe that all children should have access to quality education. We support the right to choose public, private, charter, or home education. We support the distribution of educational funds in a manner that they follow the student to any school, whether public, private, charter, or home school through means of tax exemptions and/or credits.”
The State Republican Executive Committee voted to make expanded school choice one of eight major legislative priorities of the Republican Party this legislative session.
Sadly, despite their efforts school choice is likely dead this session and all future sessions as long as a Democrat coalition controls the Texas House. As for the lawmakers who voted against school choice, Wilson says that perhaps they shouldn’t be so comfortable.
“It’s not revolutionary to point out that each of these legislators who voted against such overwhelming support for an issue like this are putting themselves in prime position to be challenged, and defeated, for re-election based just on this issue.”