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Ahead of special session, Dallas superintendent warns vouchers will pull funds from public schools

Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde sits at the end of a row of people in chairs and speaks into a microphone at a Dallas Regional Chamber event.
Bill Zeeble
Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde speaks at a Dallas Regional Chamber event on public education on Sept. 19, 2023.

Just as Gov. Greg Abbott was calling for a special session on school vouchers, Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde was warning against them.

Speaking at a Dallas Regional Chamber event around the same time as Abbott’s tele-townhall Tuesday, Elizalde told the room of business leaders that any voucher program will mean less money for public schools.

“One thing that I can guarantee,” Elizalde said, “is if private school subsidies are part of this state, we will never have enough money in public education to pay our teachers what they are worth.”

Using terms like “education freedom,” “choice,” “parental choice, “and “parent empowerment” as he made his formal call for a special session, the governor carefully avoided completely the word “voucher” or even the term Educational Savings Account. In his appeal, he never said money was involved.

“Collectively, we can make Texas even better when we all go to work to make sure we get across the finish line,” he said, “this urgent need to provide parents the ability to choose the school that’s best for their child.”

Yet vouchers are about spending public dollars for private schools. At least 15 states have passed voucher laws. Abbott wants Texas to be next.

Many districts have lost students over the past several years. With a voucher program, more would follow.

That’s a problem for funding, because, Elizalde said Tuesday, state funding follows the student.

She also worried public school funding would be ransomed in exchange for vouchers.

“It was held hostage before. I'm anticipating that it will be held hostage again,” Elizalde said. “And I think if that is the case… less dollars to public schools.”

Superintendents at least have some Texas pastors coming to their defense.

The governor made his appeal Tuesday directly to conservative Christians. Abbott was joined by religious leaders like Dallas Catholic Bishop Edward Burns and First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress as he called for pastors to praise vouchers on Oct. 15, what he called “School Choice Sunday.” It would coincide with the special session called for next month.

In defiance of the clergy backing Abbott, Pastors for Texas Children called Abbott out, saying in a statement that private school vouchers are a “clear violation of the American ideal of separation of church and state.”

Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, the organization's executive director, said the “use of public tax dollars to subsidize religious instruction is a sin against God.”

Pastors for Texas Children said it intends to “keep politics out of our pulpits.”

Abbott is already confronting potential opponents of a voucher program.

“If we do not win in that first special session, we will have another special session and we’ll come back again,” Abbott said, in Tuesday’s tele-townhall. “And then if we don’t win that time, I think it’s time to send this to the voters themselves.”

Johnson called Abbott’s rhetoric "bullying" and "odious." After repeated attempts during the regular legislative session, lawmakers in the Texas House rejected vouchers.

“That will not change,” Johnson said, “no matter how many special legislative sessions the governor calls.”

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.