School choice, vouchers aren't top education issue for most Texans. Why is it for lawmakers?

Gov. Greg Abbott stumps for school choice proposals Thursday night at San Jacinto Christian Academy in Amarillo.
Gov. Greg Abbott stumps for school choice proposals Thursday night at San Jacinto Christian Academy in Amarillo.

A recent University of Texas poll of voters statewide found only 8% thought vouchers and school choice were the top education priority that lawmakers should tackle this legislative session, a figured dwarfed by the importance that respondents placed on school safety and teacher pay.

The Texas Politics Project at UT found that school safety is the only education issue that a majority of Texans — 55% — said was “extremely important” for the Legislature to address. And 42% said teacher pay was "extremely important."

However, school choice has dominated the education debate in the 88th legislative session, and Gov. Greg Abbott has set out on a tour of Texas towns to rally support for voucher programs — using public school funding for private education — under the banner of parental empowerment.

Parents in Texas already have school choice — they can send their children to public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, private schools or homeschool — but some GOP lawmakers want to allow parents to dip into the public school funding pool to pay for private school tuition.

Proponents and opponents point to power and money, rather than educational outcomes, as the source for partisan divide in the school choice and voucher debate.

Proponents argue the proposed policies would put power in parents’ hands to make education choices for their children, while opponents worry these programs would divert money from public schools and not have oversight from a locally elected school board.

Several lawmakers — including Sens. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney; Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; and Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston — have proposed education savings accounts, voucher-like programs that would allow the state to place public funding in an account that parents can access for specific school-related purposes, including tuition, tutoring and textbooks.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, touted voucher-like programs and school choice during last week’s Texas Policy Summit, hosted by conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“There is no reason why Utah and Arizona and Iowa should be leading the conversation nationally in America right now on school choice alternatives,” Creighton said. “Texas should be leading that conversation.”

But Republican and Democratic voters in Texas would rather have lawmakers concentrate on other education issues, according to the Texas Politics Project poll, which surveyed 1,200 self-declared registered Texas voters Feb. 10-21 with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.83 percentage points.

Fourteen percent of Republican and 2% of Democratic respondents thought vouchers were the most important education issue this year, according to the poll. Fifty-four percent of Republicans and 34% of Democrats thought it was "extremely" or "very important" to address school choice issues during this session. That's compared with 83% of all voters who thought it was "extremely" or "very important" to address school safety.

'Claims on both sides'

The Legislature has for decades deliberated school choice and voucher proposals, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought those issues into sharper focus due to school closures amid the public health crisis, along with fights over library materials and curriculum content, which have in recent years become GOP linchpins.

Voucher proposals also often get wrapped into political battles billed as parental rights versus attacks on public schools.

“There are some who are very critical and anti-public schools out there,” said Christy Rome, executive director of Texas School Coalition, a public education advocacy group. “To some degree, they'll criticize public schools in many forms and fashions to make the case for why privatization should occur.”

Those critics might want more children in religious schools or might already have children in private schools and would financially benefit from voucher programs, she said.

However, not every school choice proponent welcomes an anti-public school philosophy, and social issues like banning books in libraries also distract from their mission, said Scott Jensen, senior adviser with the American Federation for Children, a group that has supported public funding for private school in several states.

“We have seen some of the cultural battles bring energy and more support to our side,” Jensen said. “We are at times a little uncomfortable with that because we think our coalition is more broad-based.”

For Jensen, school choice should be bipartisan.

“You will hear claims on both sides that are not true, whether it’s the proponents selling it or the critics predicting gloom and doom,” Jensen said.


Teacher unions have taken up the fight against school voucher proposals, and some argue that their involvement thrusts the matter into a polarized stage.

“They are often the most influential actors in the Democratic Party because of their ability to mobilize large numbers of people,” said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political science professor.

Jones was among the authors of a study earlier this year that concluded that a majority of respondents favored a voucher program. He said Democrats in primary races are often fearful of drawing teacher unions' ire should the candidate come out in favor of vouchers, despite many Texans supporting some sort of mechanism for public funding for private schools.

In rural counties, Republicans also have traditionally been opposed to voucher programs since public schools are a center of public life and a major employer, Jones said. Public schools also are often the only education choice in rural communities.

That’s largely why Abbott is taking a tour around rural Texas, visiting private schools from Temple to Amarillo to Corpus Christi to promote school choice, Jones said.

“It's a way to show those state senators and state representatives from rural areas that you don't need to worry about your school choice vote coming back to haunt you next year,” Jones said. “They support it.”

The rhetoric

On Feb. 27, hundreds of public school employees and supporters marched in front of the Capitol, rallying for myriad issues, including stepping up opposition to voucher proposals.

Last month, Steve Lecholop, deputy commissioner of governance for the Texas Education Agency — the state agency that oversees public education in the state — came under fire for asking a parent who was upset at her local school district to advocate for vouchers.

In a recording of the phone call released on YouTube, the parent expressed frustration with a public district near Dallas over her child's special education services, as first reported by the Texas Tribune.

Lecholop encouraged the woman to share her story in one of Abbott’s speeches supporting vouchers as a way to “stick it” to her child’s district.

“You cannot work with the traditional public school,” Lecholop said. “They will not work for you. You’re still paying taxes. Your tax money should be allowed to go to your child’s education.”

When asked about the call, the TEA said in a statement to news outlets, including the American-Statesman, that the parent had expressed a need for another education option.

“The conversation in question took place to help address concerns raised by a parent and to connect her with an opportunity to share more about her child’s educational experience,” the TEA said in the statement.

Lecholop, in a statement, said he supports public schools.

“Due to the nature of the accusations and frustrations levied by the parent, I made comments about a particular school system that were emotionally charged and unbecoming of someone serving in my position,” Lecholop said. “For that, I am truly sorry.”

Ultimately, the polarization around vouchers isn’t helpful to proponents' cause, Jensen said.

“I didn’t think it was helpful to advancing school choice,” Jensen said.

The money

The issue is also about money, according to Jaime Puente, director of economic opportunity at Every Texan, an Austin-based nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute.

Texas spends $60 billion every two years on public education.

“That’s a lot of money,” Puente said. “If you can put it in somebody’s private pockets the way we could with the health care system, then people will get very, very rich off that. It’s a cash grab.”

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: School choice, vouchers debate of money, power, both sides say