All 5 million schoolchildren in Texas should be eligible to attend private or charter schools using government funds, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced May 9.
Abbott’s public advocacy for a plan even his conservative allies have opposed drew an immediate and sharp rebuke from the state’s leading faith-based group supporting public education.
The governor’s “parent choice” plan “is nothing more than the failed, old-fashioned voucher proposal Texans have defeated many times before over the last two decades,” said Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children. “It must be stopped.”
Abbott, a Republican who will face Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in November’s election, made the pitch at a campaign rally in San Antonio. No details on how the plan would be funded or written are available on the governor’s campaign website, which reports only that he rolled out the idea.
The San Antonio Express-News reported Abbott portrayed his proposal as a way of “empowering parents that includes his policies banning mask mandates on campus, letting parents choose when their students return to the classroom during COVID-19, and banning ‘Critical Race Theory’ in Texas schools.”
Earlier this year, Abbott unveiled a “Parental Bill of Rights” he hopes to see become an amendment to the state Constitution. This comes amid a flurry of comments, executive actions and proposed legislation to appeal to evangelical conservatives and others who believe the state’s public schools are indoctrinating children wrongly about gender, sexuality, race and American history. Abbott also appeals to parents who want to have more direct control over details of the instruction their children receive in public schools.
He has accused public school libraries of harboring “obscene” books and has said parents of transgender children are guilty of child abuse.
Even though many of Abbott’s accusations against public schools have been proved false or misleading, they continue to play well with his political base. There is little likelihood that his “Parental Bill of Rights” will become part of the state Constitution, though, because that would require a two-thirds vote of both the Texas House and Texas Senate, plus voter approval. Republicans do not hold a supermajority in the state Legislature.
And on the issue of vouchers for private and charter schools, Abbott is likely to run into opposition from his own party members, Johnson said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have stood strong together against a private school voucher plan. Public education provided and protected by the public is one of the few policies that enjoys wide bipartisan support in Texas.
“We are particularly dismayed that Gov. Abbott would betray our rural Republican House friends, who have few private schools in their rural districts, with a voucher push,” Johnson added.
Public schools remain pillars of rural communities across Texas, and Republican legislators who serve those districts have been averse to previous voucher funding plans.
Abbott now counters some of that opposition by saying his plan would ensure that public schools continue to receive equal per-student funding: “If you like the public school your child is attending, it will be fully funded.”
However, equal per-student funding is not the same as equal funding at current levels. Critics of voucher plans, like Pastors for Texas Children, point out that every student who leaves a public school would take funding away with them, reducing the ability of public schools to work with the same economies of scale.
“Abbott is already underfunding our classrooms by $4,000 per student,” O’Rourke tweeted in response to Abbott’s proposal. “The last thing we need is to have him take our tax dollars out of our kids’ schools and send them away to private schools.”
A spokesperson for the governor told the Express-News the voucher plan would not be part of a constitutional amendment but could be passed by majority vote in both the state House and Senate.
Johnson said the very idea of state funding for private schools runs afoul of the state Constitution, however. “The Texas Constitution safeguards the ‘operation and maintenance of public free schools. … Not one syllable about any responsibility and authority over private schools.”
Pastors for Texas Children was formed in 2013 primarily to oppose voucher funding plans for private, charter and sectarian schools.
Johnson claims even “pastors who lead churches with private, religious schools oppose private school vouchers. They do not want the public scrutiny, assessment and oversight for their voluntary private assemblies that a voucher plan would entail. We are mystified why Gov. Abbott, a self-confessed limited government official, wishes to expand the authority of the State of Texas to barge into our church schools.”
With 5.4 million schoolchildren, Texas is second only to California in number of children educated every year. Texas counts 8,500 public schools within more than 1,200 school districts.
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School voucher proponents are using the COVID-19 crisis to push for taxpayer money for religious education | Opinion by Jennifer Hawks