When Texas Governor Greg Abbott convened a third special session of the state legislature earlier this month, enshrining education freedom was the top priority. It was full steam ahead with Senate Bill 1, known as the Texas Education Freedom Act, which would create $8,000 education savings accounts (ESAs) for families.
The momentum hit an unfortunate detour when the state House introduced their version of the bill. It was a sweeping omnibus package that Abbott and many Republicans deemed unacceptable. While it included ESAs, teacher pay hikes, and more school funding, the House bill also slashed many school choice benefits. Abbott has pledged to extend negotiations until he achieves the full deal. A coalition of Democrats, as well as Republicans from rural districts, are behind the downgraded bill and general school choice opposition. It’s up to the GOP detractors to form the school choice consensus that families across the state deserve.
Though it passed the Texas Senate, the House bill has a number of poison pills. It cuts the program from 50,000 to 25,000 eligible kids for the first year. It prevents parents from rolling over their ESA funds from one year to the next. It also sunsets the program in three years.
“Governor Abbott spoke with Speaker Phelan last Friday in what was a productive conversation,” Abbott’s office said. “The Governor let the Speaker know that the current version of the House school choice bill differs from what the Governor’s office had negotiated with the House’s leadership team selected by the Speaker. Speaker Phelan agreed to continue to work with Governor Abbott on the agreed-upon principles of school choice until a deal is reached.”
Like they impeded previous school choice attempts, rural Texas Republicans are stonewalling again.
“I think there is still significant opposition to any school finance bill that includes an ESA,” Republican state Representative Drew Darby said. “I’m comfortable we have enough like-minded rural Republicans, and urban Republicans, to stand against that in numbers sufficient to defeat it.”
Darby is one of the 24 GOP lawmakers who voted against ESAs and has battled with Abbott over education freedom.
Rural Republicans offer an incoherent argument against education freedom. They worry that their constituents won’t be able to take advantage of school choice because there aren’t any alternatives to government-run schools in their area. At the same time, they claim that their already under-funded rural districts will be financially devastated when students use their ESA to exit their public school.
Of course, more educational opportunities such as microschools pop up over time, as parents and teachers launch them. But the market doesn’t move fast. Rural districts are rarely suddenly starved. There’s ample adjusting time to compete with new teams on the scene.
Rural Republicans are at odds with public opinion. A recent poll commissioned by Abbott found 58% support for school choice among likely voters, and 69% among Republicans, in 21 GOP-dominated Texas House districts. Only 27% of overall voters opposed ESA, including 17% of Republicans surveyed.
But though the rural Republicans have played tough, Abbott said he won’t be quitting soon.
In his perseverance on the issue, Abbott likely took inspiration from Governor Reynolds in Iowa. When the legislature refused to advance her school choice bill, she endorsed nine pro-parent candidates. They later defeated the GOP incumbent detractors in the primaries. In the next legislative session, Iowa passed school choice.