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School vouchers: what’s happened, and what’s next?

Varun Saravanan
The Texas legislature was in such for much of late 2023, both for the regular session and for multiple consecutive special sessions. According to Governor Abbott, the sessions would continue until school choice legislation was passed. 2023 ended without school vouchers being voted into law, bringing the question: what’s next for school choice in Texas?

School Board Elections are here and many citizens can see certain hallmarks of the impending elections pop up in the months before: signs lining the roads, inboxes flooded with campaign emails, and a record-breaking string of special sessions.

The Texas legislature was in session in 2023, but Governor Greg Abbott called four special sessions upon the conclusion of the regular session in May, claiming he would continue to call for special sessions until one piece of education-related legislation had been passed. However, the issue wasn’t one that most voters see as a priority, such as school safety, curriculum, or teacher retention. Rather, one that attracted less focus from voters in 2023: school choice legislation.

The focus on school choice legislation, which includes programs that give parents state money to send their kids to schools outside of the state’s public education system, is relatively recent; the prevalence of education in political conversations has grown since 2020.

The politicization of education

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From bans on critical race theory to book bans on explicit content, educational practice has been under the spotlight since 2020. According to Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Politics Project, a number of factors contributed to the increased politicization of education, but the correlation with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is not a coincidence.

“I think, in particular, the COVID pandemic really disrupted education and brought much, much greater attention to not only what was going on inside public schools, but because of politics, negative attitudes towards public education were heavily mobilized around things like COVID mask mandates and vaccine requirements,” Blank said. “Schools became ground zero in many ways. Kids are required to be there by law.”

Schools became ground zero in many ways. Kids are required to be there by law,

— Research Director of the Texas Politics Project, Joshua Blank

On top of the response to the pandemic, the transition to virtual or at-home schooling provided a new window into the classroom for parents.

“All of a sudden parents could see exactly what their kids were being taught,” Blank said. “And it just so happened that the COVID pandemic and sort of the movement to add home learning and this sort of greater force involvement in children’s education coincided with, or actually came on the heels of a number of big social conflicts around issues like gender and race that when addressed in public schools, has created and continues to create a lot of tension and disagreement amongst parents.”

With the changes in social discourse and pandemic response, Blank believes conservatives took on a strong stance on what went on in public schools by finding a new way to talk about public education.

“Recently, the Republican party has found a different way to talk about education by talking about things like parental rights, by talking about concerns over curriculum, critical race theory, newer definitions of gender and sex,” Blank said. “And because of that, it really changed the political dynamics around school, and it became an issue that Republican candidates could go on offense on. We’re still feeling out the consequences of the Republican Party’s new focus and attention to education, and the shift that it’s had over the policy discussion that we have on education.”

For Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco the shift in perception of public education is related to the importance of school choice legislation.

“I think the more that parents start to have trouble with their school districts, not necessarily on the value of education, but on some of the other things that are going on like some of the indoctrination, some of the woke stuff to borrow a phrase that’s going on in some public schools,” Patterson said. “I think parents are starting to wake up to say, look, if you’re going to allow certain types of materials in the school that I disagree with, then I’m gonna take my business elsewhere.”

The focus on school vouchers

While the focus on education has grown, polls don’t necessarily reflect this in Texas. In a poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project, when voters were asked what the legislature should prioritize during the regular session, only 5% of voters mentioned anything relating to public education.

According to Blank, the focus on vouchers is part of a story that’s played out many times before in Texas politics and ties back to one issue: reelection.

“A very common way to explain, the pattern in which legislative leaders focus on seemingly niche or even in some cases unpopular issues despite public opinion showing either little interest or in some cases majority opposition is because Texas is an uncompetitive state at the general election level currently,” Blank said. “The main consequence of redistricting, which we had recently was to make legislative seats in both parties less competitive. Which means the Republicans have a solidly constructed majority, and the Democrats have a solidly constructed minority.”

For many candidates in either party to win in November, they simply need to win over a majority of a very, very small primary constituency many months before,

— Research Director of the Texas Politics Project, Joshua Blank

The partisan nature of Texas means that even more emphasis is placed on the primary elections, in which 18 percent of registered voters voted. With the limited competition between parties, it turns the major competition to the primaries.

“For many candidates in either party to win in November, they simply need to win over a majority of a very, very small primary constituency many months before,” Blank said. “What that’s meant for Republican politics is that essentially any mobilizable constituency within the Republican primary electorate, no matter how niche they may be, has a strong case for pushing policy. Within the Republican party, and especially within the Republican primary, homeschool parents are a large part of the Republican primary coalition.”

What happened with vouchers?

After the regular session ended in 2023,Gov. Greg Abbott called special session after special session, leading the legislature to remain in session for over 265 days. The goal of these sessions, according to Abbott, was to get school voucher legislation passed.

“It’s difficult in that we are volunteers. So we all have, or most of us have full time jobs,” Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano said. “So it creates a lot more work because we’re doing our day jobs and we’re also legislating, but these are really important issues that we’re taking on and addressing during these special sessions, so I don’t mind it at all, but it does create a lot more hours of work for me each week, but that’s what I signed up for.”

The bill that provided for school vouchers went through many changes, becoming an Omnibus bill that included public school funding, and was discussed by different committees throughout the special sessions. Shaheen is part of the Committee for Educational Opportunity and Enrichment, which reviewed the bill before it went to the House floor.

We heard from the experts, we heard from moms and dads, we heard from people that supported school choice, we heard from people that didn’t support school choice,

— Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano

“I think we heard about 12 hours of testimony, and then the next day we came in and met as a committee and voted the bill out,” Shaheen said. “But we heard from everybody. We heard from the experts, we heard from moms and dads, we heard from people that supported school choice, we heard from people that didn’t support school choice.”

Although school choice legislation ties back to a shift in the perception of public education, many representatives and constituents believe that there is more to school choice.

“Right now we kind of have a one-size-fits-all environment for children, again, whose parents cannot select the school that best serves them,” Next Generation Texas campaign director Mandy Drogin said. “And so what we see is when a parent who knows and loves their child the most, and who wants what’s best for them, and wants to ensure that they’re in a learning environment that meets those child’s needs, and provides a high quality education. That child is able to go there regardless of their zip code or the school that is mandated by the government simply because of the street they live on or their, um, socioeconomic status.”

However, the focus on vouchers by members of the Republican party isn’t shared by all Republicans. When the bill was moving through both legislative chambers, rural Republicans often voted against its passage, and others, such as Patterson, didn’t provide unconditional support.

“On a 50,000 foot view level, I absolutely support the right of parents to be able to choose the best school for their family and for their kids,” Patterson said. “But you know, how does that work? Is there some state involvement there? Can you spend that money at any school that’s out there? Or are there going to be some, some regulatory protections there to make sure that these tax dollars are being spent wisely? And then what are we doing with our public schools? How are we protecting them against, you know, the loss of students potentially, and that sort of thing.”

The last legislative move on the issue was the passage of an anti-voucher amendment, stripping vouchers from the bill, leaving it mainly with provisions for increased public school funding.

“That essentially killed the concept of school choice,” Shaheen said. “So,  It’s really up in the air right now. We’re going to keep on trying, whether we, whether the governor calls another special session.”

What does this mean for Frisco?

After failing to successfully make school vouchers law in 2023, Governor Greg Abbott has poured millions of dollars into efforts to unseat House Republicans who blocked the voucher proposal and has endorsed candidates who do support it.

Of the 150 representatives up for reelection in 2024, six represent portions of Frisco ISD: Richard Hayes of District 57, Frederick Frazier of District 61, Matt Shaheen of District 66, Jeff Leach of District 67, Mihaela Plesa of District 70, and Jared Patterson of District 106.

The most recent vote on vouchers was for an amendment to remove the provision in the omnibus bill. Plesa is the only representative who is a member of the Democratic Party, and also the only Frisco representative voted to remove school vouchers from the bill.

“Voucher scams are on the floor of the Texas House today,” Plesa said in a statement on her X account. “Those scams defund our public schools and give our taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools. I will never vote for a voucher scam because I support public education and believe in the Texas miracle.”

I will never vote for a voucher scam because I support public education and believe in the Texas miracle,

— Rep. Mihaela Plesa, R-Plano

All of the Republican candidates voted to keep school vouchers as part of the omnibus bill, and Frazier, Hayes, Leach, Shaheen, and Patterson are all endorsed by Abbott. Although the candidates have the governor’s support, it remains to be seen in the primaries whether they have their constituents backing on issues relating to school vouchers.

Frisco ISD is one of the strongest school districts in Texas, something Shaheen recognizes and believes would benefit from the school voucher legislation.

“The reality is that school choice is best for the child and mom and dad, wherever they live, but the reason why it’s good here for Plano, Frisco, Prosper, here in Collin, Denton County is because it’s the best choice for the parents,” Shaheen said. “We want that mom and dad to have those choices. The reality is the schools here in Collin County, these are really very good schools. So the reality is they would most likely gain students not lose students.” 

According to Patterson, the high public schooling attendance rate can coexist with the voucher legislation, maintaining both its students and budget.

We can have a robust public education system while also recognizing that that’s not the best option for every student in every scenario,

— Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco

“More than 97 percent of all students choose the public school route, and that will be the same regardless of if this passes, and so we need to have a well-funded and robust public education system,” Patterson said. “But for those parents where it doesn’t make a fit, then, you know, giving them the financial ability to make a different choice, I believe is the right policy initiative. If you look in Frisco Independent School District, one of the best school districts, within a mile from my house, I have a charter school and two private schools that are jam packed with students as well, and in fact have a wait list for students to go to them. And so we can have a robust public education system while also recognizing that that’s not the best option for every student in every scenario.”

Despite claims that the school voucher program will not harm public schooling, Blank believes it is important to look deeper.

“There is no small education policy in Texas,” Blank said. “Even when you’re talking about a program that might only service less than 1- 1. 5% of the student population, it still would be incredibly expensive. And it’s incredibly disruptive to the funding mechanism of most public schools because the funding mechanism for most public schools, for all public schools, is based on enrollment.”

Regardless of the stance constituents take on the issue, Blank believes it’s important to understand the possible snowball effect of a voucher system.

“If kids leave public schools, it is going to affect the budgets of public schools. And so, again, at a time when, again, many schools are losing population, and at a time when inflation has driven up the costs of goods and services, when schools are having a hard time hiring and retaining teachers, if a school loses a small number of kids, you know, three to five kids, that’s a teacher’s salary gone,” Blank said. “And that teacher teaches more than those five or six kids, right? And so that’s the thing that sort of is kind of floating around in the background out here, when the proponents of it try to sort of say, but it’s not even really a big program, why are you guys making such a big deal out of it? It doesn’t have to be a big program in a place like Texas, because Texas is so big it’ll have significant ramifications.”

This story was originally published on Wingspan on May 2, 2024.