At a Parent Empowerment Rally at the Texas Capitol on Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the crowd, “I am here to tell you that, contrary to what you may be reading in the newspaper, we are closer than we’ve ever been on a deal that will deliver school choice for you, your families, and all Texans.”
Historically, Texas has painfully lagged in school choice programs, resembling more of a blue state than its Republican trifecta. Currently, the only avenues of school choice in Texas are within the public system: charter schools and magnet schools, as well as inter-district and intra-district enrollment avenues. School choice programs that allow students to move outside the public education system are nonexistent.
Abbott Pressures Republicans
But Abbott has committed to changing that. He’s calling for universal education savings accounts (ESAs), which would grant K-12 students statewide access to taxpayer funding for other selected educational avenues.
The Texas Legislature returned to Austin for a third special session on Oct. 9. Abbott made it clear that it is time for Texas to pass school choice. If legislators cannot get it passed this session, then he’ll bring them back immediately for another session. “I can play this game longer than they can play this game,” he said about the legislature.
Republicans who represent rural areas in the House of Representatives blocked school choice from passing in the spring legislative session.
Abbott is also prepared to utilize an effective approach that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds employed in 2022. When Republican legislators opposed school choice in her state, she worked to get them voted out of office. The tactic is well-timed with Texas primary elections next spring.
The Texas Education Freedom Act
Texas state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, introduced Senate Bill 1, named the Texas Education Freedom Act, on Oct. 9, the day the session kicked off. The bill passed through the committee on Oct. 13 with a vote of 18-13. It has now moved to the Texas House.
The bill, if the state house passes it, would establish an education savings account program in Texas. Families would receive $8,000 per student in taxpayer funds that they could use on various educational expenses, including accredited private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, transportation, and educational therapies.
Creighton summarized the importance of ESAs: “Educating the next generation of Texans is a fundamental responsibility, and it is my belief that empowering parents with school choice will encourage competition, innovation and ensure that every student in Texas has the opportunity to find an educational path for their unique needs.”
According to the bill, students are eligible if they are enrolled in pre-K through 12th grade or if they will enroll in pre-K or kindergarten for the first time. The legislature would initially cap the ESA program at $500 million, a figure already built into this year’s budget. The program will grant educational freedom to 62,500 students, a number anticipated to expand over time.
Increasing Public School Funding to Win Votes
Creighton also introduced Senate Bill 2 on Oct. 9. The bill would increase public school funding, including $3.8 billion for public school teacher pay raises, $975 million for school budgets, and $400 million for school safety. SB 2 passed on Oct. 13 alongside SB 1. Creighton strategically filed the two pieces of legislation as companion bills.
Now the feat is to sway the rural Republican holdouts in the House. The House met on Monday, and the battle began. Republicans who opt to vote against school choice this special session may find their constituents removing them from office in the future.
More School Choice Options and Future Reform
SB 1 isn’t going to be the only avenue to pass a school choice bill thanks to Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, who also authored a universal school choice bill. Jetton’s bill would prioritize students from low-income households and students with special needs in the event that funding is capped. Jetton explained, “Education is an essential part of the American Dream, but student outcomes should not be tied to their zip code.”
If Abbott signs SB 1 or Jetton’s bill into law, then he would take Texas a massive step in the right direction. But it must be only the beginning. The Texas Legislature and governor must grant educational freedom to all of the nearly 6 million K-12 students in the state.
“We will chart a better future for all Texas children by empowering parents to choose the best education options for their child,” Abbott correctly stated.