Texas blocks school choice as other Republican-led states go all-in

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School choice has enjoyed massive success in the past few years, with nine states passing universal programs for their students. Stubbornly, Texas remains on a short list of Republican-controlled states that refuse to empower parents as the decision-makers in their children’s education.

The Texas House of Representatives recently voted to kill school choice, but not indefinitely. Twenty-one Republicans joined all Democrats in an 84-63 vote to strip education savings accounts (ESA) from HB1, a massive public school funding bill that would earmark $7 billion in additional funding for public schools and provide $4,000 raises to Texas teachers. The House failed to pass those measures as well, sending the bill back to committee after eliminating the school choice program.

A minority of Republican legislators refuse to listen to their constituents and support school choice. Eighty-eight percent of Texas Republican primary voters supported a nonbinding school choice ballot proposition last year. Numerous polls show widespread support from Texans of nearly all demographics.

Despite this, a group of twenty-one Republicans rebuked their party platform and their constituents. Eighteen of the twenty-one Republicans were endorsed by the Texas affiliate of the nation’s largest teacher’s union.

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But the fight for school choice in Texas isn’t over. The Senate has already passed universal school choice legislation, which the House could take up at any time. Governor Abbott could also continue to call special sessions until the House reaches a compromise.

Even with legislative options still available, many in Texas are already looking forward to next year’s primary elections, which will have broad implications. The elections in Texas, Georgia, and Idaho could make the difference on whether universal school choice passes next session. In all three of those Republican-trifecta states, a small group of Republicans have blocked school choice legislation. The 2024 primary elections are the next opportunity to take them out.

TEXAS HOUSE’S REJECTION OF SCHOOL CHOICE AN ‘EXCUSE TO SIDE WITH SPECIAL INTERESTS’

In Texas, the electoral pressure is ramping up. School choice was thirteen votes away from victory, and already, twelve challengers to anti-school choice incumbents have announced their candidacy. Many of them will have the support of Governor Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, and other political powerhouses in Texas.

School choice groups are also ready to jump into the fray. Last year, our organization spent $9 million nationally to set the stage for another year of historic school choice expansion, winning 277 out of 368 races, a 75% success rate. We targeted 69 incumbents – the hardest thing to do in politics – for opposing parental rights in education and took out 40 of them. The newly created AFC Victory Fund PAC and others are watching Texas representatives closely, and we will start endorsing primary challengers soon.

One Texas candidate already learned this lesson during the special election for House District 2 earlier this month. Heath Hyde, the only Republican candidate who openly ran against school choice failed to advance to the runoff. In a crowded field, more than two-thirds of the vote was won by school choice candidates.

Massive electoral pressure could sway some Republicans to try again this session, or anti-school choice forces could hold firm. Other states have shown that if they continue to block education freedom, their re-election prospects will get much worse.

This situation is familiar to national school choice advocates. In the spring of 2022, a similar defiance from Iowa House Republicans blocked Governor Kim Reynold’s modest school choice proposal. The bill failed, defying the clear wishes of Iowans, so Governor Reynolds aggressively targeted lawmakers who opposed school choice during their primary elections.

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After removing the stubborn incumbents, Governor Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature swiftly passed a much larger and stronger school choice program. Instead of just a few thousand kids becoming eligible for school choice, every child in Iowa will be eligible in three years. Ironically, school choice opponents would have been better off passing the smaller bill last year.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to students, parents and staff at Nolan Catholic High School while trying to build support for his school choice plan on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Amanda McCoy/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) (Amanda McCoy/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Rural Republicans joined Democrats to reject not only school choice but also billions in funding for public schools and raises for Texas teachers. In future legislative sessions, a compromise of that scale might not be on the table. House members should take the deal in front of them while they still can.  

The rejection of HB1 and school choice will likely prove a short-sighted strategy. Other states have shown that over time, parents and education freedom win. All it takes is for Republicans to vote for their party platform and finally put students first. Arizona passed universal school choice with a one-seat GOP majority, and North Carolina did it despite a Democrat governor. If they can do it, Texas can, too. 

Nathan Cunneen is a communications strategist at AFC and a former beneficiary of private school choice programs. 

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