Legislation introduced in the Texas Senate Oct. 9 would create a school voucher program that includes $8,000 a year to families who want a private education for their children.
Senate Bill 1, which is being considered in an ongoing special session, is simply the latest effort by Gov. Greg Abbot and his Christian nationalist supporters to eventually kill the state’s public education system, said Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children.
“They are a small-but-rich segment of Republicans, a far-right element that wants to destroy public schools because they are incubators of diversity and inclusion, and they don’t believe in that,” said Johnson, a Baptist pastor who lives in Fort Worth.
Abbott has mounted a full-court press to establish an education savings account program in Texas, labeling it an effort to offer “school choice” for Texas families, with money from the state general revenue fund and not dollars earmarked for education.
In addition to calling the special session to pass the legislation, the governor has threatened to actively back the opponents of legislators who stand in the way of passage, including members of his own party.
Yet, bipartisan opposition remains because many Texans love and support their neighborhood schools, Johnson said. “Voucher bills failed four times in the session that ended May 31. Similar legislation has been introduced in the legislature over the past 25 years and in the last 10 years they passed the Senate but were defeated in the House — the people’s chamber.”
Even pastors were pressured to recognize Oct. 15 as “School Choice Sunday” and to preach that morning in support of the plan.
“This is one of those unparalleled opportunities when all of us together have the ability to achieve a better state for all families across Texas. I believe every parent can do a better job of raising their children if they are given the power to choose the school that is best for their child,” Abbott said. “If they are given that power, that child will go down a pathway to better educational success, personal success and relationship success.”
Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Matt Hagee at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, and Edward Burns, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, were listed by Abbott’s office as supporting of the Sunday preaching effort.
“I am a product of the Texas public school system, but it’s time for a choice. We are going to do everything we can at First Baptist Dallas to support Gov. Abbott and his courageous call for school choice,” Jeffress said.
First Baptist Dallas runs a large private school at its downtown campus.
But many other Baptists were alarmed by the governor’s attempt to conflate church and state through his appeal.
“Texas Baptists have a strong history of resisting attempts by the government to co-opt religion for political purposes,” John Litzler, public policy director for Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission told the Texas Baptist Standard. The commission “encourages all Texas Baptist churches to continue to focus on the gospel and worship of Christ alone any and every Sunday morning.”
Abbott’s move was nothing short of “terrible,” according to John D. Ogletree Jr. of First Metropolitan Baptist Church in Houston. Speaking to Spectrum News 1, he said. “It’s a shame to try to engage the religious community into wanting and supporting what most of us believe will be a total destruction of public education.”
Ogletree is a former board member of the Cy-Fair Independent School District in Houston and was voted off that board in 2021 by white Christian nationalists who claimed he was a Black liberal racist.
Attempting to subvert the pulpit for political gain is a bullying tactic in keeping with the far-right company Gov. Abbott keeps, Johnson said. “There is something particularly offensive to people of faith about a politician trying to leverage the power of the government to show preference to a Christian nationalist point of view.”
The move also exposed the small-but-powerful group behind Abbott’s voucher push, he added. “This governor has made it a priority to align himself with Christian nationalism, which repudiates American ideals. Greg Abbott knows he cannot advance his political ambitions without a voucher system in Texas.”
If successful in the effort, Texas would join states like Florida, Arkansas, Iowa and Utah in adopting school vouchers — an idea once thought impossible in a nation built on a strong system of public education.
But Texas voters may be a problem for Abbott, too, according to a September poll by the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project. The survey found 49% of suburban voters support a voucher system, with 31% opposed. Responses flipped, however, when voters were asked about redirecting public revenue to fund private education, with 49% opposed and 39% in favor. Among rural respondents, 61% expressed support for a voucher system while only 43% approved of redirecting tax dollars for private education.
“A fair way to interpret these results is to acknowledge that the establishment of a voucher program, likely or especially couched in terms of ‘choice,’ is more popular than specific aspects of what that program would actually entail,” the study explained.
What Abbott’s goal would entail, Johnson said, is an eventual dismantling of the values and history of U.S. education by attempting to divert children to private, often sectarian, unregulated schools not subject to the financial and educational performance standards of public schools. “Vouchers are the first step of unraveling an institution that makes this nation great — the neighborhood public school.”
Families that use vouchers also will face schools that can turn students down based on race, religion, income or handicap, he said. “It’s a recession from this idea that all people are created equal. That’s not Abbott’s program. That’s not what he wants.”
But that is what public schools want, along with “a respect for dignity and tolerance across differences and being unified around this idea that all people are created equal. That’s the beautiful American dream,” Johnson said.
Johnson said Pastors for Texas Children may support Senate Bill 2, a proposal to pump $5.2 million into public schools for teacher raises and to help schools stay afloat. But that support will evaporate if the financial boost is tied to Abbott’s “school choice” plan.
Abbott has said he will not sign anything that doesn’t have a voucher provision attached.
Johnson’s organization of 1,000 pastors and thousands of lay leaders plans to flood the House chambers when the measures arrive there for consideration sometime later this month, he said. “We will be a group of faith leaders standing in prayer against this attempt to privatize education.”
The church already is in trouble, and we don’t need school vouchers to make things worse | Opinion by Bill Bruster