Compromise or pick a side? Texas House members offer preview of school vouchers debate ahead of special session

Brian Lopez, public education reporter at The Texas Tribune, moderates a panel on school choice with Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, James Talarico and James Frank at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin on Sept. 23, 2023.
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Three Texas state representatives said Saturday that a looming special legislative session on education could bring increased school funding and teacher pay — two popular and urgent ideas for many public schools facing a teacher shortage.

But that’s about all the three agreed on during a Texas Tribune Festival panel about “school choice,” a proposal to let parents take their kids out of public schools and enroll them into private ones using taxpayers' money — also often referred to as school vouchers.

The matter is a legislative priority of Gov. Greg Abbott, who has promised political consequences for lawmakers who stand in the way of a bill’s passage. The special legislative session is expected to begin next month.

Nodding the governor’s persistence, Democratic Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, of San Antonio, said lawmakers should be open to negotiate and focus on securing what they want out of the deal if a “school choice” bill is inevitable. She said teachers need to be paid better and the basic amount of money schools receive per student should increase.

“Our majority party wants vouchers. That’s a fact. Our state leadership wants vouchers. That’s a fact,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “We can continue to fight and waste a lot of time fighting and see who comes out winning but guess who’s losing? Our teachers who are trying to pay their rent. Who’s losing? Our children who are not getting what they need.”

Gervin-Hawkins’ willingness to compromise on one of the most polarizing issues in the state juxtaposed the stance of her Democratic colleague Rep. James Talarico of Austin, who said vouchers of any size would be a threat to public education. Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, on the other hand, said such a school voucher program would give parents more power to make decisions about their children’s education.

“Fellas, I hear ya,” Gervin-Hawkins told her two colleagues. “But the reality is I see every day — every day — our teachers who need that increase and we need to make that happen.”

Talarico said the issue represented such a threat to public education that it requires lawmakers to pick sides.

“We are facing a historic crisis in our schools,” he said. “Compromise is not a virtue when our kids are on the line and when our teachers are on the line.”

When asked about concerns of parents of children with disabilities, Frank said parents should have the choice to place their child in another school.

“If your needs are being met in a public school, why would you ever move them?” he said. “You’re only going to move them if you think they’re going to be better served. That’s the only reason you’re going to move them. I don’t know how giving them an option of doing that is going to hurt them.”

As The Texas Tribune's signature event of the year, The Texas Tribune Festival brings Texans closer to politics, policy and the day’s news from Texas and beyond. Browse on-demand recordings and catch up on the biggest headlines from Festival events at the Tribune’s Festival news page.