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Republicans are optimistic about school choice in next session — but it might not be easy

TxTrib School Choice bill
Tamir Kalifa
/
The Texas Tribune
A ninth-grade student returns a classroom calculator to its pouch at Bowie High School in Austin on April 2013. Some Republicans say support for school choice is at an all-time high and are hopeful that the Texas Legislature will back related measures next year.

Advocates say discontent with public schools’ pandemic rules and teachings on race and gender identity have helped raise support for school choice to an all-time high.

After decades of rejections, state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, believes this upcoming legislative session is the one where Texas will finally pass a school choice program.

Supporters believe they will finally cross the finish line with backing from families displeased with public schools in the last two years over pandemic response rules and about how race and history are taught. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas GOP have already listed school choice as a legislative priority for next year.

“Parents have truly woken up,” said Middleton, who was elected to serve as a state senator during the coming legislative session. “You’ve seen in school boards — not just across the state, but across the country — where a lot [of parents] feel like their voice may not be heard, but at the end of the day, this is just giving them the tools.”

But despite their optimism, Middleton and other Republican lawmakers keen on passing school choice measures will once again face an uphill battle in convincing rural Republicans and public education defenders to support legislation that they say will take money away from public schools.

School choice is a term used to describe programs that give parents state money to send their kids to schools outside of the state’s public education system. The most common are school vouchers, state-sponsored scholarships for private schools that have also become a shorthand when talking about measures that would take taxpayer money from public schools.

Middleton has already filed Senate Bill 176, which could become the most expansive piece of school choice legislation in the state if it were to pass. It would create an education savings account program that would allow parents to use state funds to pay for their children’s private school, online schooling or private tutors.

Under Middleton’s legislation, families that opt out of the state’s public education system would receive the average amount of money it costs Texas public schools to educate a child, which is currently about $10,000 a year. The money would roll over on a year-to-year basis and could be used to help families pay for higher education, according to the bill. The funds for the program could come from both taxpayer money and donations.

“What my bill would do is it would empower every single parent in the state of Texas to choose which education works best for their children’s unique educational needs,” Middleton said.

In addition to Middleton’s bill, state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, has filed House Bill 619, which would give tax credits to individuals who make contributions to private school scholarship funds. State Rep. Cody Vasut, R-Angleton, filed House Bill 557, under which the state would reimburse parents who pay for private school tuition.

Lawmakers have until March to file legislation they will back next session.

The last ambitious school choice bill before the Texas Legislature was filed in 2017, but it was killed by Republicans from rural Texas after it made it out of the Senate.

Middleton believes the timing is right to try again. The push for having the “money follow the child,” as Middleton describes it, has become a top issue for families rallying against how children learn about race and gender identity in school.

Some conservatives have criticized books found in school libraries that depict or reference gender fluidity and have described those that they’ve deemed as too explicit as “pornography.” They also believe that public schools’ teachings on race have a liberal bias, often mislabeling them as “critical race theory,” a college-level discourse that examines the impact of systemic racism and isn’t taught in Texas public schools.

Middleton also hopes that offering state funds that families could use for home schooling or save up for higher education will help his bill succeed. Both of these measures were not included in the 2017 bill.

But even as Middleton tries to sweeten the deal for everyone, school choice advocates will first have to face familiar foes.

Rural Republicans have long opposed school choice. Texas is home to the most rural students in the nation and, in most cases, public schools in rural areas serve as a hub for employment and are a source of community pride. With few private schools in rural regions, the school choice pitch there has mostly fallen flat. Anything that could potentially take away money from public schools usually draws a big no from rural lawmakers.

During a Texas Tribune event earlier this month, state Rep. Ken King, a Republican whose district includes parts of the Texas Panhandle, said he would reject any school voucher bills.

“If I have anything to say about it, it’s dead on arrival,” he said. “It’s horrible for rural Texas. It’s horrible for all of Texas.”

J.A. Gonzalez, superintendent of the McAllen Independent School District, said he is against anything that would take money away from public schools that are already struggling with enrollment declines.

“If you look at what’s best for a great state, it would be to fund public institutions,” Gonzalez said.

School choice supporters also face opposition from the State Board of Education, the 15-member Republican-controlled board that dictates what Texas’ public schoolchildren learn. On Nov. 18, the board voted to reject diverting tax dollars from public schools to private and religious schools.

Bob Popinski, senior director of policy at Raise Your Hand Texas, said one of the main issues with school voucher programs is that private schools will be receiving taxpayer dollars but not held accountable to the same standards as public schools. Raise Your Hand Texas is a nonprofit that advocates for more resources for public schools and was founded 16 years ago solely to lobby against school choice bills in the Legislature.

“What ends up happening is you drain funding from traditional public schools,” Popinski said.

But Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, believes private schools are held accountable to the parents, who ultimately should be the most important figures in a child’s education.

Colangelo said she is ready to debate for school choice legislation this spring and is confident that support for the cause is at an all-time high.

“I’m excited for people to truly understand how private schools work and how they can be partners with public schools in a way that hasn’t happened before in Texas,” she said.

Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas and Texas Private Schools Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.